When Daniel Weisleder tried to board his return flight from San Jose, Costa Rica, to Houston with his wife and 10-month-old son recently, a United Airlines ticket agent delivered some bad news: He’d have to pay another $166 to fly home with the baby.
“Someone made a mistake,” the agent said.
That might be an understatement. Weisleder, who directs an educational consulting firm in Pittsburgh and is an elite-level United customer, reluctantly forked over the extra $166 to fly home. But he couldn’t understand the late charge.
“When I booked the reservation, I notified United that I would be traveling with an infant on my lap,” he says. “I was charged $991 for the tickets. We checked-in in Houston without a problem, but when we were coming back, we were told that our baby had to pay an additional ticket.”
He adds, “This, of course, made no sense at all — why would you charge us extra to have a baby on our lap?”
There’s an answer to that question. If you’re a travel industry insider, you probably know it. But you don’t have to be a card-carrying travel agent to understand that United leaves no stone unturned when it comes to making money. Just last week, it raised its change fees on domestic tickets from $150 to $200, meaning that many discounted tickets are essentially unchangeable.
There’s an even bigger question that his experience raises, I’m willing to bet the answer isn’t as certain: Can an airline — can any company for that matter — charge you again long after the final bill is settled? And is that ethical?
“Late” billing lives!
Other travel companies have raised what’s called “late” billing to a fine art. Hotels famously add items to their “final” bills that may have been missed at check-out, including a guest’s breakfast, charges for wireless Internet access or, most notoriously, a “cleaning” fee for having allegedly smoked in the room.
But in the travel industry, car rental companies are the true masters of billing you long after your trip is over. Drivers are routinely late-billed for cleaning, traffic tickets and missed tolls, and often with little or no evidence of the infraction. Damage claims can be made on some rental cars months, and even years after the rental, with customers’ credit cards either being billed directly or a threat that if they don’t pay up quickly, you’ll be reported to a collection agency.
In the overall scheme of things, a $166 bill doesn’t seem so bad. But is it right?
United’s policy, which is clearly spelled out on its site, says his son needed a ticket.
“Children under the age of two traveling internationally without a seat are required to purchase a ticket and are subject to infant fares and taxes,” it says. “When making your reservation you should indicate you are traveling with an infant, regardless of your destination.”
But that’s exactly what Weisleder did. He told United he was flying with an infant, and left it to the airline to calculate the correct fare.