Redeem This: Why United’s Voucher-Redemption System Sucks

JFK in the wee hours of the morn

JFK in the wee hours of the morn

Even when I’m not traveling, I am. Let me explain.

In addition to visiting NYC for the summer – which I don’t really consider traveling because it’s where I grew up – I’ve been taking lots of weekend road trips, so many in fact, that I’ve spent but one weekend in the city proper since I arrived back in May.

In the last two days, I’ve made two trips to JFK, neither of which culminated in a flight anywhere. Instead, I was there to cash in one of the vouchers I’d received after being bumped last summer. I’ve never before had a problem redeeming a voucher — from any airline — even though United makes the ridiculous requirement that you visit an airport in order to do so. The much more efficient Alaska Airlines allows redemption via phone, but not via Internet. Hello? Airlines? This is the 21st century. What gives? (Also see my previous post on Alaska vs. United.)

My theory is that the ever-ailing airlines want to save a few more bucks and are hoping you don’t redeem the voucher before its expiration date. By making the process as Byzantine and inefficient as possible, they’re hoping you might not even bother. Who can be bothered? My theory was further reinforced by my experience of trying to redeem this latest voucher.

When I called to redeem the voucher, as I had with my Alaska voucher back in April, I was informed that I had to make the transaction at the nearest airport with a United counter. Thankfully, since I’m currently in NYC, I had three relatively convenient options nearby. Now, what would someone in, say, Chinle, Ariz. (where two friends of mine used to live) do? Drive three hours each way to redeem their voucher? It would hardly be worth it, especially with gas prices as high as they are. That was my first indication of the veracity of my theory.

So, on Monday evening, I hopped on the LIRR at Penn Station (a few extra bucks would save me roughly half an hour each way, as opposed to taking the subway), transferred to the AirTrain at Jamaica, then walked into the United terminal only to discover that all the counters were unoccupied. A quick visit to the sole United employee on duty, in baggage services, confirmed that the ticket counters had closed nearly two hours earlier, at 8:45. I had arrive that late only because the telephone agent had assured me that I could redeem my voucher until midnight. Turns out that what the agent meant — but didn’t delineate, perhaps in the hopes I wouldn’t actually use my voucher — is that, although my reservation would be redeemable until midnight, that didn’t mean there would be anyone at the airport to assist in the redemption.

I called United and immediately asked to speak to a supervisor. (His estimated counter-closure time: 7:30, a full hour and 15 minutes earlier than what the baggage clerk had told me.) After explaining my situation multiple times and saying I didn’t wish to spend another three hours returning to JFK the next day, I finally got the phone supervisor to tell me I could mail in the voucher. Why was I not told this sooner? I guess that mail-in is the method a Chinle resident might opt for, even though the process offers no guarantee that you’ll actually get the flights you booked, as it takes ten days to process and confirm. Although I told the agent this was what I would do, the uncertainty of the situation changed my mind while I was riding home.

Three hours and $17.75 later, and I had nothing to show for my efforts but a lack of sleep.

After calling United the next day and being told a different closing time for the ticket counter (7:45), I returned to JFK, shelling out even more money this time for the privilege of riding during peak hours. Once I got there, the agent assured me this was a “1-2-3 ticket,” meaning it usually takes her seconds to process. Fifteen minutes later, she and her co-worker were still tag-teaming with their in-house help department to see why the final step in the redemption process couldn’t be completed. “It’s usually 1-2-3,” Agent 1 assured me. Suuuure, it is. I could practically smell the mechanics of my theory whirring away behind the luggage conveyor belt.

The supervisor happened by. The other agent explained the situation while her co-worker continued to wait on hold for her own company to help her. The supervisor apologized to me for the wait, and I decided this was an opportune time to tell her the full story. Only supervisors, I knew, wield the almighty power of awarding further compensation. Perhaps I could get her to see the illogic and inefficiency on which this voucher-redemption system was based, and how it had so inconvenienced me.

Moments after I received the receipt for my flight, I was also leaving with 500 bonus miles in my account. Considering how that minimum limit has been wiped away for customers who’ve actually flown, I thought myself quite lucky.

Happy ending? Yes, but I’m still irritated that, with all of today’s technological advancements, United is unable to redeem vouchers via telephone, let alone the Internet. No wonder airlines are bleeding money. If such a simple transaction eats up two hours of employee time (my estimate, based on all the agents I both called and saw in person), of course they’re going to be in the red. And, if the next time a “free voucher” ends up costing me nearly $50 and six hours of my time, this redhead will be seeing red.

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