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Whose ticket is it, anyway?

Blake Robinson cashes in his US Airways frequent flier miles for a ticket on a partner airline, United. But is the ticket valid? A US Airways representative insists it is, but a United ticket agent disagrees — and forces him to buy a new one. Is Robinson entitled to a refund, and if so, from whom?
/ Source: Tribune Media Services

Q: I recently cashed my US Airways’ miles for two round-trip business class tickets to Europe. The outbound flight was on SAS from Newark to Stockholm, and our return was on United Airlines from London to New York.

US Airways deducted 160,000 miles from my Dividend Miles account, and our seat assignments were confirmed through the airline’s Web site.

We also received a paper confirmation of the outbound part of the trip in the mail. When I called to inquire about the missing return confirmation, a US Airways representative told us not to worry — since this was an e-ticket, no paper confirmation was needed.

When we arrived at United’s ticket counter in London, an agent informed us that we had a reservation, but no ticket. He insisted on a paper ticket. I showed him the evidence of our confirmation number. The United agent tried to help, by calling US Airways in London several times, but the US Airways people would not acknowledge that we had e-tickets.

United insisted that I pay for my tickets, which cost an additional $3,701.58. On top of this, US Airways subsequently charged my credit card without our authorization for $239.34.

I’ve been back and forth with US Airways for the last six weeks, trying to get a refund. Finally, a representative from the executive office told me, “Let me be blunt. It isn’t going to happen.” Can you help me get my money back?
— Blake Robinson, Darien, Conn.

A: Let me be blunt. United Airlines shouldn’t have charged you for your ticket, and US Airways should have done everything in its power to get your refund.

But instead of taking responsibility for your problem, it stalled for six weeks, finally telling you to get lost. That’s completely unacceptable.

What went wrong? I contacted your airline to find out. Although you bought your tickets through US Airways, your tickets were issued through United Airlines, a partner airline. After that happened, you were in United’s hands, as far as US Airways was concerned.

But not as far as you were concerned. Or me.

Both of your tickets were, in fact, valid. But the United ticket agent in London failed to recognize your ticket and forced you to buy a new one. That’s not US Airways’ mistake — it’s United’s.

Who’s responsible for fixing it? US Airways says it’s up to United. But you see it differently (and so do I). As the airline that sold you the ticket, I think US Airways bears some of the responsibility for finding a solution.

When I reviewed this case with US Airways’ executive office, it became clear that the airline didn’t initially know what you were asking for, and it didn’t have enough information to help you. You could have avoided six weeks of frustrating back-and-forth by offering a complete account of what happened, including giving your representative the reservations numbers necessary to track your ticket.

When US Airways had a clearer picture of what was going on, it decided to hand you off to United. Technically, that was the right call. But let’s not get technical. US Airways should have at least offered to act as an intermediary with United, to help secure your refund.

You were correct to question the validity of the first paperless ticket you received in the mail. Clearly the United ticket agent you dealt with was confused, too. If you had followed up by calling United, you might have been able to clear up misunderstandings about the ticket before your return flight.

US Airways correctly charged you $239.34 for taxes on your frequent flier tickets, and there’s no way around it.

Could it have explained those fees to you more clearly? Of course. But it made up for its shortcomings by working with United to secure a full refund of the ticket you had to buy.

Christopher Elliot is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. E-mail him at, or troubleshoot your trip through his Web site,