Here’s an imponderable travel question: Is a “free” checked bag transferable to another airline?
Specifically, if your flight is canceled and then rebooked on a different airline — in other words, if the carrier endorses your ticket to another airline — should that endorsement include the ability to check a bag free?
That is the question confronting Rick and Carole Sheviakov, who recently flew from San Francisco to Seattle on United Airlines. The return flight was canceled, and United rebooked the couple on an Alaska Airlines flight.
The Sheviakovs have a Mileage Plus Explorer card, which gives them a “free” checked bag. I put the term “free” in quotes because the Sheviakovs paid for the amenity with an annual fee and by heavily using the card. There is no such thing as free. But I digress.
“A customer service rep assured me that any fees would be reimbursed and noted it in the file,” says Rick Sheviakov.
It didn’t happen.
The Sheviakovs had to pay $50 for their “free” bags on Alaska Airlines. They didn’t mind because they had verbal assurances from the Seattle representative, a woman named Diana, that they would be covered. They assumed that would mean they’d receive a $50 check.
Instead, they got this:
It is unfortunate that we were unable to reschedule you on the next available United operated aircraft. We realize that as a United MileagePlus Explorer Cardmember you were exempt of the baggage fees when traveling on United. Unfortunately, when travel is on another carrier, the baggage policy of that airline applies.
You are a valued MileagePlus member and we appreciate your business. It is never our intent to inconvenience our passengers. I regret any misinformation you were given concerning reimbursement of the baggage fees paid to Alaska Airlines. However, I’m unable to refund charges collected by another airline.
In recognition of our appreciation and as a goodwill gesture, I will send you a $100 electronic travel certificate to be used toward a future ticket on United. The terms and conditions of the certificate will be sent from a different email address within 3-5 business days.
(At this point in the story, I usually offer a word or two about the hazards of loyalty programs and the evil of affinity cards. I don’t want to disappoint you, so here it goes: Mileage-earning credit cards turn otherwise rational consumers into clueless lemmings, forcing them to spend money they don’t have in order to collect rewards that quickly expire. They should be banned by law, along with all ridiculous loyalty programs.)
The Sheviakovs appealed, of course. To which United said:
I regret you’re dissatisfied with our response and continue to be
disappointed with United.
You asked us to reexamine your request, and we have done so. All things considered, we do support our earlier decision. The $100 certificate was intended as compensation to offset your out of pocket baggage expenses along with a gesture of goodwill to provide you with a chance to experience the service you deserve. While I understand you do not feel it is meaningful given your circumstances, I hope you will accept it in the spirit in which we have intended.
We appreciate your understanding and will do our utmost to make your future contacts with United satisfactory in every respect.
I’ll take that as a hard “Nyet.”
But still, it raises the question: When an airline endorses a ticket to another carrier, how much of the ticket should it endorse? Should it cover the “ancillary” purchases, such as luggage fees or Wi-Fi?
That’s actually an interesting discussion.
If Sheviakov had purchased a bag, United would probably reimburse the cost. Then he could just take the money and pay for his bag to be transported on Alaska.
Then again, if he’d been flying on an airline that offered a bag as part of its fare, like an international carrier or Southwest, and his ticket were transferred, would it also cover his checked bag? Probably not.
There’s also this: United gave him twice what he was asking for in vouchers. No, it’s not the same as money, but it’s better than nothing.
For the rest of us, this is nothing more than a cautionary tale about the “benefits” of affinity cards. Airlines, and the credit card companies with which they’re in cahoots, love to take your hard-earned money, but when it comes to giving it back, they’re not as enthusiastic. Think about that the next time you give all of your loyalty to one airline or one credit card.
The loyalty only goes one way.