united tailAmanda Ellis says she was “very upset” after her United Airlines flight from Honolulu to the Marshall Islands was canceled because of a sick crewmember.

It wasn’t the one-day delay. Ellis, her husband and seven-year-old son were flying to the islands to adopt their daughter. It wasn’t even the fact that they spent the night under less than desirable circumstances.

It was the way in which the airline tried to compensate the family for the inconvenience, she says.

The Ellises had done everything by the book — or at least, they thought they had.

“We arrived two hours ahead of flight time for check in,” she says. “At 5:35 a.m., they announced our flight is canceled until tomorrow morning due to a crew member being ill.”

United couldn’t find hotels for anyone on the plane, so it placed all the passengers in the ballroom of a Marriott and provided cots for them to sleep on.

“No bathrooms, no water provided,” she says. “Just pull out your cot with 60 strangers for the night.”

I’ve slept under similar circumstances before as a solo traveler, and it’s not comfortable. I can’t imagine trying it with a seven-year-old.

This is what United would euphemistically call a “schedule irregularity.” Here’s what it says you’re entitled to, according to its contract of carriage:

F) Amenities for Delayed Passengers

1) Lodging – UA will provide one night’s lodging, or a maximum allowance for one night’s lodging as established by each location, when a UA flight on which a Passenger is being transported incurs a Schedule Irregularity and the Passenger incurs a delay that is expected to exceed four hours between the hours of 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. local time. Where lodging has been offered but not accepted by a Passenger for whatever reason, UA is not liable to
reimburse the Passenger for expenses relating to alternative lodging secured independently by the Passenger.

It all comes down to the accepted definition of “lodging.” Does a cot in a ballroom constitute lodging? I wonder if they made the first-class passengers bunk down with everyone else? I imagine not.

“I do not believe this was a hotel stay,” she says.

Ellis complained after her trip, and United sent her a $250 voucher that expired in a year.

“But we have no plans on traveling in the next year,” she adds. Ellis thinks United should either offer a refund or give her a voucher that doesn’t expire, so that she can travel when she’s ready.

I’m not sure if a refund is in order, but I think a strong case could be made for extending her vouchers. The bigger issue is this: How does United define “lodging”? If this definition is allowed to stand, what’s to stop it from setting up cots at the airport terminal and telling stranded passengers to take it or leave it?

United should have found a real hotel for the Ellises and the other delayed customers. It seems to me that contacting the Transportation Department might actually yield better compensation for her and the 60 other passengers who slept in the Marriott ballroom that night.

Did United offer the Ellises enough compensation?

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