Before the COVID-19 crisis swept the United States, Nadir Johnson planned to take his daughter on a college tour—flying roundtrip from California to Washington, D.C.—in late March and return home in early April.
As the departure date neared, coronavirus prompted widespread flight changes and cancellations. The 46-year-old father from Mountain House, Calif., received an email from United Airlines rescheduling his return direct flight to San Francisco with a layover in San Diego.
“I contacted them to find out what the issue was and [to say] that I couldn’t take that flight. I needed to be back on Saturday, early,” he said. “I was told that that was the only flight available and I could cancel. … I didn’t realize I could have told them to cancel on their end because they changed my flight and I couldn’t make that flight.”
In all, he paid $1,192 including $95 for preferred seating for himself and his 18-year-old daughter, who is a high school senior. They planned to visit universities in Hampton, Va., North Carolina and the District of Columbia as well as see his 82-year-old mother.
United issued Johnson a $1,087 credit tied to his original confirmation number.
“They did not refund that $95,” Johnson said. “They said I had to fill out a separate refund request, which could take up to eight weeks.”
On March 23, Johnson went online to use his credit to book a new set of flights departing April 9 and returning April 21.
He selected a flight for $276.80. When he tried to use his credit by entering his old confirmation number, the price of the flight switched to $1,646.80, according to Johnson and screenshots sent to The Crisis. The site subtracted the cost of the original trip—$548.80—and waived the change fee for a total due of $1,098 for one flight.
That’s when he picked up the phone and called United.
“I explained to the agent what happened,” Johnson said. “She came back with a slightly lower price, like $1,030. I told her this was absurd. I asked: ‘How is it that the flight is so much more than the original flight?’ and the line went dead. I called back again and another gentleman did the same thing and came up with the same price. I was pretty annoyed that night.”
United usually charges $200 to change a domestic travel itinerary. According to the COVID-19 notices on United.com, all change fees are waived for tickets issued on or before March 2, 2020 for original travel dates from March 3 to May 31. Flight changes “must be reissued on/before December 31, 2020 or 12 months from original ticket date, whichever is earlier” and “rebooked travel must commence within 12 months from the original ticket issue date.”
Johnson tried to reach someone in customer relations before sharing his story with The Crisis.
“They make it very hard to get in touch with a supervisor or somebody in corporate,” he said.
United’s media relations did not respond to multiple email and voicemail requests for comment over several days from The Crisis.
Johnson wants the airline to refund the nearly $1,200 that was spent on both tickets. He also urges United officials to investigate the online price flip, which could have been experienced by other consumers.
Rebooking is not an option for now, he said, because college campuses are closed for tours, travel is limited and he doesn’t want to potentially expose his mother to the virus.
But when the world opens up again, Johnson hopes to find fairness with the airline.
“I just want to be charged what the actual flight costs,” he said.
— Cindy George is a Houston-based journalist.