How Do Normal People Ever Manage to Navigate Airline Bureaucracies? United Strands a New Mexico Monk Edition

Sometimes it amazes me that the public at large can successfully travel from one city to another without getting stymied by airline bureaucracies and ineptitude.

Modern flight is truly miraculous. Modern airline technology, customer service, and business processes often are not.

I run into frustrating situations with airlines all the time, and I do this all the time and – presumably – I even sort of know what I’m doing. Most people don’t.

Delta agents don’t know who their partners are. American doesn’t publish its award redemption rules. United tickets on partners re-issue and cancel. United ticketing issues are especially problematic. For instance,

The New York Times carries a story about a New Mexico monk who traveled to Malawi to visit his sick mother. His $2500 ticket was purchased with the monastery credit card.

When the monk learned he would need to stay longer, the monastery called United to change his reservation. United claimed the ticket was never paid for. Even though they allowed outbound travel.

United indicated though that a credit was available from the return portion of the ticket. But the airline wouldn’t allow it to be used, because it was suspected to be a fraudulent charge.

So United suggested that the head of the monastery drive three hours to the Albuquerque airport to sort things out in person at the ticketing desk there.

After escalating, a United supervisor promised to re-issue the ticket, but the new e-ticket confirmation never came. Because the ticket wasn’t reissued.

The monk called back.

My monastic life is about staying peaceful in all circumstances. I failed during this call. .. I said to her something like: ‘Thank you for speaking. God bless you. I will pray for you. But you have not been helpful.’

The monastery posted the story to their website, and someone forwarded it to a United executive who had the ticket reinstated.

United had claimed that the monastery’s credit card cancelled the ticket, which turns out to be false. The New York Times gets United to comment, and the airline blames it on a third party they’ve hired to detect fraud.

No doubt a credit card in a name other than a passenger used for travel to Africa fits a profile, although uually this sort of fraudulent ticket originates in Africa. Nonetheless cancelling a ticket after the outbound has been flown, and not telling the customer, is a very strange way to approach the issue.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Its not just united… A year back, state farm insurance canceled my vehicle insurance, and never told me about it… I found out three months later when I wanted to pay my next 6 month installment.. When I eventually got them on the phone, the agent asked me, do you have insurance with us?

  2. Actually, I think these bureaucracies are working out very well for the airlines. Such convenient “mistakes” allow them to cheat plenty of customers. Pretty often you hear about the person giving up and paying for a different flight to get home, so at the end of the day, the airlines profit. Most people aren’t holy monks working for a monastery, and it is very easy to threaten them into paying more with “sit down, shut up, do you want to get home” tactics. They have it down to a science how to infuriate people and put them in the wrong when they can even get a monk to bless out a CSR.

    @alex In our state, the DMV will inform you that your auto insurance has been cancelled but life insurers still use your tactic as a matter of course. There needs to be huge fines or some other consequences for large companies making “mistakes,” else it becomes profitable for the “mistakes” to continue. IMHO.

  3. @Gary, “strange” is not a word most people would use to describe this situation. Criminal, fraudulent, negligent, grand theft (did you know it is a felony in most states to steal more than 1k?)? Had no one intervened United would have literally stolen more than $1k from the customer. Are you suggesting United helpfully refunded the rest of the money back to the credit card company and the monks? @Peachfront is correct – this is baked-on systemic fraud designed to make the airlines money – not only does it cost less to be incompetent it in fact makes the airline money. That it took a vice president to resolve this issue is what makes it remarkable – the monks were going to be robbed without literal deus ex intervention on the part of United.

    Imagine this was – they ship half of your order, charge you for the entire order. You call to ask for an update and they say “sorry, you never paid for the part you received and you certainly aren’t getting more.” Another call and they tell you “there was fraud, so we’re keeping your money and you’ll get nothing else.” I wouldn’t call that behavior strange, I’d call it “actually criminal.”

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