Unfortunately compassion is often lost in the airline industry. I see how that happens. The airline industry is incredibly complex, and there are so many moving parts that often following the published policy is the only way to do business. For example, if someone is just two minutes late for their flight it seems cruel to leave them behind, but on the other hand you never know what impact this could have on people with connections on their bags, etc.
We hear a lot of horrible stories in the airline industry. In some cases these are stories of airline employees acting abusively towards passengers, in some cases there are stories of passengers acting abusively towards employees, and then there’s everything inbetween.
This is one of those stories where you can’t really point your finger at any one party, though you can say “gosh, that sucks.”
The New York Times ran a story yesterday entitled “She Boarded a Plane to See Her Dying Mother. Then Her Ticket Was Canceled.”
Essentially what happened is that on January 16, 2018, a woman from Colorado intended to fly to Minnesota to see her dying mother, as she had just hours to live. The passenger had a ticket on United which was purchased by her landlord, because the woman couldn’t afford her own ticket. She made it all the way onto the plane and was on her seat, when this happened:
But minutes before departure, already buckled into her seat, she was ordered to leave the plane. The gate agent told her that her reservation had been canceled. Traveler Help Desk, the online agency that sold the ticket, had rescinded it because the landlord made a change directly through United — even though United had assured the landlord that it was not a problem to do so.
Unable to fly, Ms. Amrich drove through the night, not stopping even to use the bathroom. Her sister, in the hospital room, held a phone to their mother’s ear, and Ms. Amrich begged her to hold on.
She was still driving when her cellphone rang again. Her mother was dead.
For their side of the story, here’s what Traveler Help Desk, the online travel agency that issued the ticket, had to say:
Carolyn Gallant, customer service supervisor at Traveler Help Desk, confirmed that the agency had voided the ticket after it saw that a change had been made to the reservation. She said that the intention had been to protect Ms. Amrich against possible fraud and that a representative had tried “numerous times” to contact Ms. Amrich first.
But Ms. Amrich and her landlord, Ines Prelas, said they had heard nothing from the agency before she was removed from the plane.
The reason they changed the flight was because originally she was planning on flying the following day, but her mother’s condition deteriorated, so the landlord called United directly to change the flight.
Once she was removed from the flight, here’s what went down between her and the gate agent:
When Ms. Amrich pleaded, saying her mother was dying, the agent responded that her ticket had been refunded and that “nobody flies for free.”
Back in the airport, Ms. Amrich called Ms. Prelas, sobbing. Ms. Prelas got on the phone with the gate agent and offered to pay for another ticket.
“I said: ‘Take my credit card. We’ll straighten this out later, but get her on that plane,’” Ms. Prelas said. The agent, she said, responded that Ms. Amrich could not get back on the plane.
Traveler’s Help Desk followed up with this:
“We had no way of knowing this was a change by Ms. Amrich directly with the carrier,” she said in an email, adding that if the change had been unauthorized and the agency had not canceled the ticket, Ms. Amrich would have lost her money. “We voided the ticket to protect Ms. Amrich.”
“I am just so sorry for Ms. Amrich’s loss,” Ms. Gallant wrote. “It is tragic. I understand it was unfortunate the ticket ended up voided. Had she contacted us directly to make the change, this all would have been avoided.”
This is such a sad story, and I can’t imagine how this lady is feeling. It’s also the prime example of a situation where no specific party is completely at fault, but rather a combination of unfortunate errors and misunderstandings leads to a horrible result.
The landlord should have contacted the travel agency to make changes, though (understandably) she didn’t know that. The airline industry is complicated, and the United agent advised her it was okay to make a change directly. The travel agency should have made contact with the landlord and/or traveler before canceling the ticket. They claimed they reached out but didn’t hear back, so we don’t know where the truth lies there.
Perhaps worst of all, the gate agent sounds like s/he should have shown a lot more compassion. While my initial instinct is to say that the gate agent is the most wrong here for his/her lack of compassion, I’m not sure it’s that straightforward. If the ticket were voided, the gate agent couldn’t simply put someone on the flight without a ticket. It’s not specifically about the money, but rather about having a passenger on the flight who doesn’t appear on the manifest. I doubt the gate agent could have done it if s/he wanted to. So presumably a ticket needed to be issued and/or restored, and that would have taken a significant amount of time. A delay on this flight could have lead to a bunch of other passengers misconnecting, and who knows if other people were dealing with equally dire circumstances. Furthermore, United claims that the plane had left by the time the landlord offered to buy a new ticket.
I have nothing but sympathy for the lady who lost her mother. I don’t think anyone was being intentionally malicious here, and based on what we know the only party I can blame here is the gate agent, and that’s for how she allegedly spoke to the passenger, more than anything else.
What do you make of this horrible situation?