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[conventions|travel] The high cost of cancellation - [conventions|travel] The high cost of cancellation - Lakeshore Page 2 — LiveJournal
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Jay Lake
Date: 2013-12-04 06:34
Subject: [conventions|travel] The high cost of cancellation
Security: Public
Tags:cancer, conventions, family, health, personal, radiantlisa, travel, uk
As I mentioned yesterday, I am having issues with United Airlines. This first cropped up a while back, as discussed here: [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ]

This all goes back to my troubles trying to get to this year's World Fantasy Convention in Brighton. (I have discussed some of this previously here on the blog.) Last summer, I tried to book plane tickets for me and Lisa Costello to fly there. The $700 per person UK arrival fees for a free mileage award ticket were impossible for us to meet. At the time, I checked out simply paying for a fare, and even the cheapest was far higher, because those $700 fees were embedded in any trans-Atlantic airfare to London.

Unnamed Benefactors stepped forward and offered to fund our airfare if we would pay our own on-the-ground expenses. I very gratefully said yes, and proceeded to arrange a low-cost European vacation for myself by couch surfing in London and Paris, spending money only on the Eurostar train to get between the cities. Except for the convention hotel itself, my only expenses otherwise were going to be food and incidentals, as my Unnamed Benefactors provided tickets for the two of us on United Airlines. Lisa was planning to fly out the day before the convention and join me.

Three days before my scheduled departure, Lisa's father suffered a massive stroke. Other relatives stepped forward to respond with immediate help, but Lisa needed to fly to Maryland at the end of that week to help with the necessary but difficult lifestyle transitions now underway.

That meant (and still means) that Lisa was now juggling my life-ending terminal illness and the life-changing illness of one of her parents. I could not leave her alone with this. So with great reluctance, we cancelled our trip to Europe. We also severely truncated a post-trip engagement with my agent, and cancelled the visit of another friend who was due after Orycon, both of these to great regret.

The financial aspects of this situation have turned into a severe mess.

In order to cover the expenses incurred by my Unnamed Benefactors, I also sought a compassionate medical emergency refund from @UnitedAirlines, which states on their Web site that they provide such consideration. Unfortunately, since our tickets were purchased as nonrefundable airfares, United Airlines also does not offer any refund. Their response to me did not even acknowledge the nature of my request, simply stating that my tickets were nonrefundable, but that I did retain an airfare credit. Which isn't even my money, as the Unnamed Benefactors paid for it. And it's not like I'm going back to Europe anytime in the rest of my drastically foreshortened life.

At the same time, my Unnamed Benefactors wrote me asking me to pay them £1,295.90 (approx. USD 2,073), as we would not be attending WFC.

This absolutely floored me. If I had $2,073 to spend on airfare, I would have bought the damned tickets myself in the first place. What I thought had been an act of kindness and charity towards me turned into me being expected to pay $2,000 for the privilege of not attending WFC so I could help Lisa care for her stricken father.

The books do in fact balance somewhat. Were I to directly pay back my Unnamed Benefactors, I would get to keep the airfare credit, less change fees and penalties. But I don't have $2,000 sitting in a travel budget to give them. If I did, I would have bought my own tickets in the first place. If United were going to refund the tickets, the whole business would just be a wash.

But after multiple rounds of discussion, United has flatly refused to refund the airfare. Apparently a sudden life-threatening illness on the part of my partner's father does not constitute a medical emergency in their eyes. Which makes me wonder what the hell does? I'm pretty damned irritated about this, most especially about the amount of time I have already spent focusing on this issue. My life is running out of time — between the shocking and insensitive demand from my Unnamed Benefactors and United Airlines' refusal to honor their own compassionate exemption policy, I have been expending significant amounts of that finite time and energy on things I should never have had to deal with.

All to no avail thus far.

I'm honestly not sure what to do here. Had I known the original offer of tickets to WFC required a complete payback in the event of cancellation, I almost certainly would not have accepted it. My own health is too precarious, quite frankly, which is why all plane tickets I buy and pay for these days are purchased with trip insurance. While I have enough money sitting in my bank account to pay back my Unnamed Benefactors, that's not what it is for. And I cannot spend a United Airlines airfare credit to pay my bills or help Lisa help her parents. The budget isn't there, especially to pay for a trip I am not even able to take.

I'm feeling very pushed around right now, and looking at a lot of expense well beyond anything planned or budgeted at a time when our expenses have skyrocketed due to both my own illness the problems in Lisa's family. I'm also much more wary of accepting offers of assistance in the future, as I never foresaw hidden strings like this and do not know how to foresee them going forward.

There's a strong temptation to tell my Unnamed Benefactors to take a hike, but that's hardly ethical as I'm apparently inheriting the airfare credit regardless, given the intransigence of United Airlines. I'm tempted to hold a small fundraiser to pay this off, but that also hardly seems fair to people who might want to support me. If United Airlines honored their own compassionate refund policy, the problem would essentially not exist, but that road has now been closed.

This situation frustrates me immensely. At this extremely difficult time in my life, I am left with yet another large, unbudgeted expense for which I have nothing to show but trouble and a waste of my precious, waning days.

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User: scott_lynch
Date: 2013-12-04 20:50 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This use of "benefactors" is a new synonym for "sharp kick to the balls" I must admit I have not previously encountered.
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User: cissa
Date: 2013-12-04 21:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
United are being douches, but that's par with them.

I am shocked and appalled by the behavior of the "UBs". That is unconscionable.
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Lawrence M. Schoen
User: klingonguy
Date: 2013-12-04 22:28 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I call Shenanigans, on both United Airlines and the Unnamed Benefactor.

Also, screw them!
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User: mmegaera
Date: 2013-12-04 23:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"I cannot afford to pay you back. I thought this was a gift or I wouldn't have taken it." Period. You owe them nothing else.

Even if they're threatening to sue, unless you signed something to the effect that you'd pay them back if you couldn't go they haven't got a leg to stand on.

"Friends" like that aren't your friends, anyway. I'm just sorry you had to find out this way.

Edited at 2013-12-04 11:27 pm (UTC)
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User: djonn
Date: 2013-12-05 00:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
A demand for repayment certainly represents a severe lack of consideration on the part of the Unnamed Benefactors...but I find myself reluctant to group myself among those piling onto the UBs in this situation.

From their perspective, they've expended over $2000 -- a nontrivial sum to anyone short of the very, very affluent -- which has effectively vanished into thin air. My suspicion (which I admit is based on no hard evidence whatsoever) is that the UBs exercised poor financial judgment in making the offer/gift in the first place; either the $2073 was an expense that they really couldn't afford but chose to make anyway, and/or that a subsequent event has inflicted a financial reverse on them that's been greatly exacerbated by the gift to Jay. Does this excuse the also-poor judgment of demanding the return of what was offered as a gift? No, it doesn't -- but then again, I can't really blame the UBs for being as upset and frustrated about the matter as Jay is himself.

Part of the problem is that the matter at hand involves airplane travel. For good or ill, the airline reservation system worldwide is structured in a way that makes it relatively difficult for an unrelated third party to pay for somebody else's plane ticket. In nearly any other situation involving a gift of goods or services to Jay, the UBs could have written a cheque or supplied a credit card number directly to the seller or service provider, and Jay wouldn't be in the financial loop at all. Here, that wasn't a realistic possibility; to make the deal work, Jay had to act as the UBs' financial intermediary with United.

Bearing that in mind, and even allowing for the axiom about hindsight being 20/20, I think that were I in Jay's shoes, I'd almost certainly have turned down the UBs' offer of airfare. Three factors stand out: the size of the gift coming from an individual (especially someone whom I didn't know well), the cash-handling aspect as noted above, and the inherent uncertainty of any travel plans in light of personal circumstances. (The specific crisis that did occur was absolutely unforeseeable, but the potential for medical or other issues to disrupt the trip on short notice would have struck me as unreasonably high.)

In the end, I think there's room for criticism -- and for lessons to be learned -- on all sides. Based on the story as we have it, however, I don't see a way to amicably resolve the financial issues so long as United insists on keeping the money despite the tickets going unused.
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User: keikaimalu
Date: 2013-12-05 01:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
to make the deal work, Jay had to act as the UBs' financial intermediary with United

This isn't true. You can indeed buy an airplane ticket directly for someone else, as long as you have their relevant information for TSA. My company just flew me on a business trip, and I didn't act as a financial intermediary. (Of course, that means giving personal information for the TSA requirements. But it's still possible.)

However, as much as I feel for and agree with Jay -- and I do -- I'm not joining in the piling on the UnBens either. I don't know them. I don't know the circumstances. I'm sure they have their own story to tell.

I agree it looks outrageous from the outside, but I am loath to condemn someone when I don't know their side. It is possible to have and show enormous compassion for the frustration and upset Jay is going through without vilifying a total stranger.

Jay, I'm so very sorry you're going through all this. And at such a time. Insult to injury. I hope it all finds a quiet resolution soon, and brings as much peace as possible to your life.
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User: djonn
Date: 2013-12-05 03:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
My company just flew me on a business trip, and I didn't act as a financial intermediary. (Of course, that means giving personal information for the TSA requirements. But it's still possible.)

Yes, but I'd regard your employer as a related third party; there's a pre-existing connection, and (as you note) that relationship carries with it your explicit cooperation in providing personally identifying information so that the company can pay for the ticket. In today's privacy-and security-conscious environment, that's not information you casually release to people -- or even businesses -- you don't know well. I stand by my contention; today's air travel system is explicitly engineered to limit people's ability to fly on other individuals' nickels.
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User: willyumtx
Date: 2013-12-05 23:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
In the recent past (maybe three years ago or so) I bought a ticket for a friend to travel with me to California.

I paid for the trip and he paid me back. This was done so I could get bonus points for my account with the airline.

The airline (Southwest) had no issue with me charging and paying for both tickets. They did require my friend's name, DOB, and contact information.

About five years ago, I bought and paid for two tickets (me and a different friend) on Southwest as well. There were no issues with that transaction either.

I was not related to either friend (one was poker friend, the other a boyfriend) in any official manner.
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User: djonn
Date: 2013-12-06 00:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The cases are not comparable -- at least not on the basis of the data we have.

Both your examples involve trips in which you were a participant, and where you had a prior personal relationship with your fellow traveler. We have no basis for assuming the existence of such a relationship between Jay and the Unnamed Benefactors, and to the extent that there are hints in the story as we have it, those hints argue against the existence of such a connection.

Moreover, I haven't said (and wouldn't argue) that it isn't possible for genuinely unrelated third parties to pay for other people's airline tickets. What I have said is that the existing infrastructure strongly discourages such a practice. In the post-9/11 world, it isn't hard to understand why this is the case -- and the money-trail isn't the only logistic issue involved. Merely formulating a workable itinerary for a complex or unexpected trip can be a challenge, and that's often not something an unconnected third party could easily do at long distance.
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User: willyumtx
Date: 2013-12-06 08:29 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"For good or ill, the airline reservation system worldwide is structured in a way that makes it relatively difficult for an unrelated third party to pay for somebody else's plane ticket."

My reply was in response to the above sentence from your post/reply.

In both of the two instances that I mention, I did not buy the tickets as a pair or combo.

I bought a ticket for my friend V-----. And then I bought a ticket for myself. If I did not buy a ticket for myself, there was nothing stopping V----- from flying by himself on a ticket that I paid for entirely. And I did this on-line while physically separate from V-----. And I did not speak to the airline about my travel plans nor did I provide them with any information about any relationship, or lack thereof, between me and V-----.

I could buy a ticket for Jay right now on Southwest -- I would just need his name as presented on his ID, his DOB, and a contact phone number.
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Lynn Gold
User: figmo
Date: 2013-12-05 07:44 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Alas, the best solution I can think of would be to have United give the "benefactors" the airline credits and the hell with the money.

IMHO, you don't donate money and then say, "Oops, I take it back." To do so is Just Plain Rude.
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