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A couple weeks ago I drove my sister and newest nephew south to be with the rest of her family down in San Francisco. It was a one-way deal, as I was driving their minivan, and I knew I’d have to figure out how to get home. I’d looked at flights, and none offered a good schedule based on work. But I knew this could change quickly, as United often opens up very last minute space.

So I found myself booking a flight the next day while sitting in the car halfway to San Francisco, using 7,500 Avianca LifeMiles and $30.60 to buy a ticket that would depart the following afternoon. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel pretty smug doing so, as this last-minute flight wasn’t cheap, and it was the perfect use of their domestic U.S. short-haul award chart (SEE: 3 reasons why I am SUPER excited for the new LifeMiles short-haul awards). This both used fewer miles and avoided the frustrating close-in United award fee.

But the joke was on me, as everything went completely off the rails. If you’re not in the mood for a story, jump ship now. This turns into quite a long rant.

Yet another canceled flight to Arcata

I should have known that my decision was a poor one. United’s track record is pretty poor on that short hop (SEE: My first flight to nowhere). No sooner had I booked the flight, then I found out via the Facebook Travel Grumps 101 group that SFO was set to experience air traffic issues over the next two days. Great. This can’t end well.

And it didn’t. At first I thought we were in the clear, as the aircraft set to operate our flight (according to the United app) had arrived from Calgary the day before. We should have it easy, and inbound flights were more seriously affected. The FAA was limiting the number of aircraft per hour. But no, our CRJ was given away to some other route in need, and after a delay notification, the flight was ultimately canceled just after boarding time.

At least the canceled flight revealed why we have the airport code we do. I also got to eat at both Yankee Pier and the Giant’s Clubhouse, the two SFO Priority Pass restaurants, and meet another member of Travel Grumps. We would have been on the same flight back to Humboldt. Instead, I hopped back on BART to San Francisco. The United agent I spoke to wasn’t able to issue a refund, just rebook me. And I didn’t want to come home 2 days later, which was the soonest option offered. Time to call Avianca to get my miles back.

For English, press 2

Although I consider my Spanish abilities passable for most purposes, explaining my canceled flight situation in English was my preference. But Avianca couldn’t make this happen for me. I waited on hold for over an hour, and no one picked up. It was getting later and later, and eventually I decided to call it quits and get to bed.

I tried again the next day after renting a car and driving for hours through the rain. Same result. Endless waiting. I guess they don’t have many people who speak English in their office. Or the one who does was on vacation for a couple days.

However, since I was leaving again on a quick trip with my older son, calling Avianca fell off my radar. Eventually, I got around to it over a week later.

What do you mean the ticket is “flown”?

This time I didn’t spend so long on hold. I pressed “1” for Spanish and was connected with an agent in short order. However, I’d apparently messed up after that first selection, as I’d reached the revenue fare booking department and not the LifeMiles desk. He transferred me, after an awkward exchange in Spanish. He also instructed me to choose English the next time. I feel insulted.

Amazingly, the wait was only 15 minutes this go around. I spoke with a friendly agent who informed me my ticket shows as “flown”, so no refund of miles or fees could be processed. What?!?!?! Total baloney. How can a ticket be marked flown if I didn’t fly it?! The flight was canceled. Did United assume I wasn’t going to use it after I didn’t rebook within a certain time frame?

I’m really not familiar with these intricacies, but there was definitely a problem here. I was instructed to email support@lifemiles.com to see if I could get a resolution. So I fired off an email in short order explaining the whole situation in detail.

Cómo se dice ‘useless’?

Inútil. That’s how. And it is the perfect descriptor for Avianca. My vain hopes that I would get a positive response from them were dashed when I received the following:

“Ian, it’s a pleasure to greet you. Regarding your inquiry, we’ve noticed that you used the ticket ### under the booking XXXXXX; therefore, it’s not possible to evaluate a refund, since we can only reimburse unused tickets. We appreciate your comprehension.”

Que pesado es Avianca. Yo comprendo perfectamente pero es claro que no le importa que pasó.

I tried a second email to no avail. Wall. Of. Stone. They couldn’t care less.

Following up with United

After I was completely shot down by Avianca, I was left with no alternative except to call United. And when United is your only hope for help, you know things aren’t looking good.

My call to United went well. Since becoming a Premier Silver as a perk of holding Marriott Platinum (now Bonvoy Titanium) status, I’ve noticed my calls typically get picked up within just a minute or two, which is much better than the 20-40 minute hold times I’ve experienced a year or two back trying to get issues resolved.

The agent was understanding and helpful, but he could not really offer more than simply a confirmation that the flight was indeed canceled, but the ticket still shows as flown. I don’t know why that is, but it does. He told me to pass that back to Avianca as proof, as the screenshot came directly from their system. I spent some time on hold, and the whole call lasted about 30 minutes. More life wasted. Luckily I set my phone on speaker and got at least a little work done while I waited.

At the same time, I decided to submit a customer service complaint to United. Instead of costing me $30.60 plus ~$12 for BART and Muni, the trip had cost me $24 in BART and Muni, $105 for a rental car, an additional night and day of food costs. Enterprise is the only serious winner here, as the agent offered to mark my full fuel tank as empty so that I wouldn’t have to worry about fueling up (this was partially due to the fact their location didn’t open on time and I stood around waiting and contemplating if I was ever going to make it out of San Francisco).

Hello, Avianca, my old friend

Having to contact Avianca yet again was not what I’d hoped I’d have to do. I nearly asked the United agent to call them on my behalf, keeping me on the line if necessary, but I don’t even know if they can do that. I did at least ask him for a phone number that I can give Avianca support in case they need/want to call and confirm the ticket cancellation.

So I shot off another email to Avianca with the very clear screenshot and an explanation from the United agent. This was also shot down hours later. As always, I received “cordial greetings”, followed by “no, we really don’t care”. The ticket shows as flown, so we can’t do anything.

At this point, I was infuriated. What else am I supposed to do??? I have proof that the flight was canceled. United made an error (I would assume?) marking the ticket as flown, and I’ve provided proof of the same, and you still won’t give me a refund??

Avianca received a very strongly-worded email at this point where I told them exactly what I thought of their customer service efforts. Boiled down to two words: utter failure.

Help me United, you’re my only hope

It’s a sad day when this is what I have to cling to. Since I was being stonewalled by Avianca, I turned back to United customer service, this time submitting a form detailing out the situation and what had transpired. In the meantime, my first inquiry had been received, and I was offered a $150 “goodwill” voucher for my experience. Definitely not for the expenses incurred. Finally, I can chalk something in the “win” column.

The second complaint was responded to fairly promptly as well. This time I was provided a letter from a United customer service agent, on their letterhead, with the details of the event. It reads:

I immediately attached and sent this on to Avianca. Given their previous replies, my expectations were low. Sure enough, I was shot down again. Flown means flown, even when the plane didn’t fly! They directed me back to United as the operating carrier.

The final resolution

At this point I was livid. This was 7,500 LifeMiles, which may not sound like much, but considering where I live, I value those miles at $200+. Avianca had taken them and failed to provide any service. I’d threatened them with submitting a credit card dispute, and I finally followed through on that at this point. Sure, this only recouped the $30.60, but a little bit is better than nothing. I’m not sure if Chase ate it, but I have to admit I *really* hope they clawed it back from Avianca.

With nothing else to lose, I turned back to United once again, emailing customer care one final time. I explained that Avianca really didn’t care, no matter the evidence. I stated that they kept pointing me back to United, and that I would appreciate if someone would advocate on my behalf, as I was obviously getting nowhere.

Now…I didn’t honestly expect anything to happen. I was essentially stuck between two airlines who are pointing the finger at the other one as the responsible party. But in the end, United stepped up and offered me 7,500 of their own miles. These were credited within a day, and with that, I’m considering the case closed. I’m done.

Conclusion

After all that effort and headache, I guess I just converted 7,500 LifeMiles to United miles and ~$160 cash out of pocket to a $150 United voucher. Which isn’t all that good on the surface, but it’s better than being out both the miles and cash if I had just sat back and let things transpire.

My guess is that not everyone would be this tenacious and try to hang on this long with either company. You can definitely write off such a small number of miles. But I felt wronged. This will make me more cautious about using LifeMiles in the future, although I continue to find their award chart and lack of fuel surcharges attractive.

Just know what you are getting into! This was one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had with any travel provider. Ever.

Featured image courtesy of J Babinski under CC-BY-2.0 license

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