A dying mother, a generous landlord, and the people who make our nightmares

All Carrol Amrich wanted to do a week ago Tuesday was get to Minnesota from Pueblo, Colorado to say “goodbye” to her dying mother.

She didn’t make it thanks to the byzantine system of air travel, the New York Times said Friday afternoon.

Her story is the latest in a long and never-ending album of abuse being written by the nation’s travelers.

She had a ticket for the flight. Her landlord had bought it for her because Amrich couldn’t afford one. She had a boarding pass and ticket confirmation. She got on the plane. She’d even buckled her seat belt.

But then United told her to get off the flight. Because the landlord had earlier changed the flight directly with United, the online ticketing company — Traveler Help Desk — canceled the ticket, allegedly to protect Amrich from the possibility of fraud.

The Times said United had assured the landlord at the time that dealing with the airline wouldn’t be a problem.

It was a problem.

When Ms. Amrich pleaded with the gate agent that her mother was dying, the agent said the ticket had been refunded and “nobody flies for free.”

After she was thrown off the flight, her landlord called United and offered to buy another ticket.

“I said: ‘Take my credit card. We’ll straighten this out later, but get her on that plane,’” the landlord said.

United said “no,” later claiming the plane had already left.

Amrich started driving toward Minnesota. Her sister held her phone to her mother’s ear so Amrich could beg her mother to hang on at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester until she got there. Not long after, and before she got to Minnesota, Dixie J. Hanson, 80, of Austin, Minn., was dead.

The ticket agency is saying all the right things. “Sorry” and all that.

“I understand it was unfortunate the ticket ended up voided. Had she contacted us directly to make the change, this all would have been avoided,” the online ticket company representative said, which should be handy information to have the next time her mother dies.

United Airlines’ corporate office later contacted the landlord who had the compassion no one else seemed to have had for Ms. Amrich’s plight.

They wanted to know where to send flowers.

(h/t: Nancy Yang)

  • Ms. Amrich is certainly not a frequent flier. How could she possibly know the vagaries of airline ticketing? It always amazes me how someone at the airline – even a low level employee – couldn’t have been empowered to simply make a decision on the spot, given the obvious distress of the customer who was clearly caught in a bureaucratic snafu and in a time-sensitive situation.

    • Jim in RF

      I think people instinctively and naturally want to be helpful. It takes a lot of corporate processes and rulebooks to pound it out of them.

      • It doesn’t help that a last minute ticket to Rochester MN from Colorado Springs costs about $1,000.

        • frank

          Damn

        • John

          jeez. I’m flying from Chicago to Beijing to Tokyo and back to Chicago for less than that in March (though those tickets were very much not last minute).

  • Robert Moffitt

    I had my share of airline nightmares after my mother’s funeral and as late as yesterday, when I was informed that my ticket from Dallas to Minneapolis had been “cancelled” w/o explanation. Then they told me all flights to MSP were “full.”

  • theoacme

    This is what United Airlines might as well have sung to Ms. Amrich, a childhood memory of a parody of “On Top Of Old Smoky” that was sung when I was in school (lyrics adjusted slightly to fit this situation)…

    On top of Old Smoky
    All covered in snow
    We made sure your mother
    Did die all alone
    We’ll go to her funeral
    We’ll go to her grave
    Instead of some flowers
    We’ll throw a grenade…

    (Given how United Airlines has been lately, I think that they would be far far far more likely to sing the unexpurgated version of Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You” to her instead, with the ticket agency playing the female backup singers in the video…)

  • crystals

    I was thinking to myself recently that airlines might do well to invest in an ombudsman. It would only work if the executives actually care & listen to what they have to say, and the ombudspeople are empowered to really dig in, but my god do they need some help. So many unforced errors.

    • Veronica

      Being an ombudsperson sound like a really fun job. Tough, but satisfying.

  • MikeB

    It’s too bad that we won’t tolerate the absolute evils of government regulation to prohibit and penalize such behavior. Just breathe all that corporate freedom

  • AL287

    When my father died in January of 2016, I was determined to avoid flying to Louisiana.

    My knees simply could not tolerate the cramped conditions of economy class or the cost of a last minute airline ticket.

    There were delays in scheduling his funeral which allowed me some extra time to get there.

    I booked a round trip ticket with Amtrak including a sleeper berth from Chicago to Hammond, Louisiana and reserved a rental car for the remaining drive to my hometown of Baton Rouge.

    Enterprise was wonderful when we encountered delays (not an uncommon occurrence on rented train tracks) and assured me someone would pick me up at the station, which they did.

    This young woman needed to get home to Minnesota in a hurry and her landlord made arrangements to get that accomplished.

    The only way to put a stop to the airlines’ cruel and insufferable behavior is to boycott the guilty party.

    When a handful of airlines have a monopoly on airline travel this the unfortunate result.

    “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”

    We seem to have lost all compassion and empathy in the U.S. in the name of efficiency and profit.

    • Chickaboom25

      I think United and the third party travel agency share blame in this fiasco, but all it would have taken was a little effort on the part of United for the gate agent to go to his/her computer, do a little keyboarding and get the passenger out on a flight to MSP from Denver (there were more that evening and even then, there’s a bit of discrepancy in the story…United said the plane had already left when the landlord offered to buy another ticket, passenger said it had not left). There are a lot of United apologists online trying to place all of the blame on the ticket seller but that’s simply not the case.

      • // there’s a bit of discrepancy in the story…United said the plane had already left when the landlord offered to buy another ticket, passenger said it had not left).

        I see nothing in the Times story that says the passenger said the plane had not left. Link?

        • Chickaboom25

          “In a statement, United Airlines referred questions about the ticketing
          mix-up to Traveler HelpDesk. It said Amrich couldn’t buy a new ticket at
          the airport gate in Colorado Springs because the plane had already left
          — Amrich disputes that.” Link: https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/airplane-mode/ticket-mix-causes-woman-miss-flight-visit-dying-mom-n841601 And there are other news stories that mention this.

          • The AP report is written off the Times report in which Amrich doesn’t weigh in on whether the plane had left. She disputed whether the ticket agency had tried to contact her.

          • Chickaboom25

            I realize that but you asked for a link where that reference was made and I provided one. Perhaps the article you cited left it out?

          • Right, I asked for the link to determine whether it was correct that she said the plane didn’t leave on time; she didn’t. The link was helpful to determine that the AP was writing from the NY Times story (as I was) and they got it incorrect.

          • Chickaboom25

            lol

  • AmiSchwab

    fly delta

    • Chickaboom25

      Or Southwest.

  • Mike L

    I want to thank her un-named landlord that tried to do everything right and be that good person. You cannot always make the right things happen no matter how much you try. Thank you again for trying.

  • Laurie Isabella Blair

    QUOTE:Because the landlord had earlier changed the flight directly with United, the online ticketing company — Traveler Help Desk — canceled the ticket, allegedly to protect Amrich from the possibility of fraud.
    The Times said United had assured the landlord at the time that dealing with the airline wouldn’t be a problem.
    It was a problem.
    When Ms. Amrich pleaded with the gate agent that her mother was dying, the agent said the ticket had been refunded and “nobody flies for free.” UNQUOTE

    I have read these lines several different times and I have no idea what they mean. And I am 62 years old with a college degree. Can someone please translate?? Thanks.

    • It means her landlord bought her a ticket through an online ticket agency… then they decided to change the flight so she called United directly. The online ticket agency, thinking it might be a scam, canceled the ticket but did not contact her.

      Using the link might help.

      • Laurie Isabella Blair

        Thanks Bob. I don’t know if it was the way it was written that it just wouldn’t make sense. I just dealt with an online travel agency in July AND I had to cancel my flight because my dad got sick (I had the insurance) so you’d think I’d be smarter.

  • ker

    United need to have their licenses taken away.

  • lusophone

    This doesn’t help Carrol, nothing can at this point, but I always recommend booking directly with the carrier, either by calling them or on their website. One more party included in the booking process means one more access point to create an error.

    The agency could have easily called United or the passenger or the landlord (they should have contacts for all 3) when they learned about the change and avoided this situation.

    I doubt booking a different carrier would have made much difference.

  • Terra R

    I understand the circumstances, believe me I was there at the hospital with my dying Grandmother of that you speak of! I am appalled that you have the audacity that you use the photograph of her to muse your story about this airline. This was a personal photo of mine not yours for a story! I suggest this get taken off immediately!