Do you have the right to an English-speaking representative?

By | June 11th, 2016

Catherine Webb thought she understood what the United Airlines representative told her in broken English when she called to make a reservation. She didn’t.

“I was trying to book a ticket online for my daughter and myself to travel from Bradley International Airport to Los Angeles,” she says. “I was having problems finding the correct flight so I called the 800 number for assistance.”

Webb wanted to hold her reservation with a credit card and then call back to use miles to pay for the flight. You can do that online through a service called FareLock.

“I asked the representative, who I could not understand very well, several questions while he was booking the flight, including if I could hold the flight and call back and change to miles. He said, ‘yes’ to every question I asked,” says Webb.

And you can probably guess what happened next. She called back a day later to book her ticket with her miles and was told by another representative that was impossible. “I could only cancel the ticket and there were no flights for miles available,” she says.

To add insult to injury, she found a $25 charge on her bill for making the reservation through the non-English-speaking phone representative instead of online. The foreign representative also neglected to make the correct seat reservation — placing her in an exit row, where she was not legally allowed to sit because of her age — which had to be fixed later. She asked to speak with an English-speaking supervisor but was told none was available.

Related story:   Honestly, Ms. Haynes, the check is in the mail!

How frustrating.


“I am not happy with the customer service center in general. I was not advised properly when I was booking the flight, about the miles, or the $25 per ticket charge, the language issue, the exit seat and the supervisor who told me that I could not speak to anyone else at United regarding my reservation,” she says.

Yeah, I’d be upset, too.

No doubt about it, Webb had a negative customer service experience. But I’m actually surprised about the incomprehensible United representative. On my last visit to United, the customer service managers were telling me they’d quietly moved to call centers in the United States, the better for us to understand them with. I guess that didn’t last long.

Call center confusion can be funny.

But I have a serious question: Do we, as English-speaking customers, have a right to an English-speaking representative?

A right might be going too far, but on the other side of this equation, you have to wonder why any company would offer an “800” number if there’s no one you can understand at the other end. And why would you then sock someone with a $25 fee for using the phone?

Here we have someone whose entire problem was caused by a language barrier — one that is entirely United’s fault — and which is also entirely preventable.

Webb’s emails kicked out a form apology from United for “for any language barrier and seating mishap.” But she wants her $25 back and a real apology. Should I help her get one?

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