United & travel agency work together to keep woman from seeing dying mother

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United Airlines doesn’t have the best reputation among travelers these days, and rightfully so. They have had a variety of shocking stories become national news. United’s latest issue involves Carrol Amrich, a woman from Colorado was on her way to see her dying mother. Her landlord, Ines Prelas, had helped her by buying the ticket & making a last-minute change to try to get her to her mom’s bedside in time. However, this didn’t happen, as Amrich was removed from the plane shortly before departure.

More details from The New York Times via Boing Boing:

The entire episode unfolded over a few hours on Jan. 16, after Ms. Amrich learned that her mother, Dixie J. Hanson, had been hospitalized. She could not afford a plane ticket, so Ms. Prelas bought one for her, using Traveler Help Desk because it was the cheapest option she could find. At that point, there was no indication that Ms. Amrich’s mother was dying, so she chose a flight for the next day.

But soon after, Ms. Amrich learned that her mother was in heart failure and was not expected to survive the night. It was around 2:30 p.m., and Ms. Prelas immediately called United and had Ms. Amrich switched onto Flight UA5712, leaving Colorado Springs at 5:15 p.m. That flight would go to Denver, where Ms. Amrich would make a connection to Minneapolis. Ms. Prelas showed The New York Times confirmation emails and a photo of Ms. Amrich’s boarding pass.

She rushed Ms. Amrich to the airport, about an hour’s drive from Pueblo. Ms. Amrich checked in: no problem. Her boarding pass was scanned at the gate: no problem. She took her seat. She buckled her seatbelt.

Minutes later, the gate agent came on board to remove her.

When Ms. Amrich pleaded, saying her mother was dying, the agent responded that her ticket had been refunded and that “nobody flies for free.”

Apparently, the travel agency, Traveler Help Desk, took it upon themselves to cancel the ticket after they saw the flight had been changed. This is atrocious customer service.

More from The NY Times:

Ms. Gallant, the Traveler Help Desk supervisor, said that when Ms. Prelas contacted United to change Ms. Amrich’s flight, all Traveler Help Desk saw was that the reservation had been modified.

“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.”

Traveler Help Desk claims that they wanted to protect Ms. Amrich from fraud & that they tried to contact her. Whether that last part is true or not, it is unacceptable to unilaterally cancel a ticket that has been paid for. Credit card companies have gotten pretty good at fraud detection these days, and if even if they don’t detect it right away, they are still the ones who should handle any potential unauthorized charges. Travel agents surely must expect that passengers might make changes on their own, especially on a last-minute ticket. The notion that travelers should have to contact a travel agency rather than the airline is arrogant and in this case, victim-blaming.

Let’s take a second here though & applaud Ms. Amrich’s landlord for being so compassionate as to not only purchase a plane ticket for Ms. Amrich, but to also help make changes & rush her to the airport. We need more people like Ines Prelas around.

Ultimately, United should have handled the situation better. Yes, from their initial perspective, all they knew was that someone was on their flight who hadn’t paid. How Ms. Amrich managed to make it onto the plane with the boarding pass is another story, but it’s possible that the ticket was cancelled afterward, given how quickly this all happened. I do see how an airline would need to guard themselves against that scenario – otherwise clever travelers could board a flight, then cancel their ticket while they are sitting on the plane. Whatever the case, United should have had more compassion and tried to resolve the situation in a reasonable manner, rather than immediately resorting to their typical poor customer service that involves taking people off planes.

The lesson here as always is don’t fly United. But also, stay far, far away from Traveler Help Desk.

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