Andrew Spector, Onyi Iweala, and their three children hoped a lost bag on their journey from Durham, North Carolina, to Abuja, Nigeria, would be the biggest travel hiccup of their 10-day trip to visit family.
But when the family of five arrived at the Abuja airport on the day of their flight home, they discovered they didn’t have tickets — despite having a receipt for them.
Spector said his family spent $4,000 and two days, and took three flights, to make it home.
Spector purchased five tickets in mid-March from United Airlines for $10,181, according to receipts viewed by Insider. The family was scheduled to fly out of Abuja on United’s partner airline Lufthansa in August.
The itinerary would take them from Abuja to Frankfurt, Germany. For this long-haul flight, the family spent $3,450 to upgrade their seats to business class.
From Frankfurt, they planned to board a United plane to Chicago, Illinois. For this flight, the family upgraded to premium economy for $1,375.
Once in Chicago, the family would head home to Durham, North Carolina, again flying with United.
On July 1, Spector received an email (viewed by Insider) that outlined a schedule change. He said he noticed that the flight from Abuja to Frankfurt had disappeared from their itinerary, so he logged onto his Lufthansa account. Here, he said it showed his confirmed reservation and the upgraded business-class seats. He thought the family was all set.
A few days before their flight out of Abuja on August 11, Spector said he called United as he was worried his family wouldn’t make their scheduled connection due to delays caused by airlines rerouting as a result of a military coup in Niger. Spector said he wanted to see if he could move the Lufthansa flight to an earlier time.
Spector said a United customer-service representative told him that they couldn’t change his flights without charging a fee. In a statement sent to Insider, a United representative confirmed that the family reached out to the airline a few days prior to their flight.
Spector kept his family’s scheduled flights and said if they missed their connection from Frankfurt to Chicago due to delays, he figured United would be responsible for finding them another flight home.
When the Spectors arrived at the check-in desk at the Abuja airport on August 11, a Lufthansa agent told them United hadn’t provided a ticket number to Lufthansa, so the airline couldn’t issue the family tickets.
«The ticket agent says, ‘Well, the problem is you don’t have a ticket,'» Spector said.
Spector said he was confused and shocked. «We booked these flights in March,» he said. «We have seats, I have a reservation number, I have a receipt.»
According to the Lufthansa desk, there wasn’t anything the airline could do, and they told Spector he needed to contact United. But Spector said United told him the opposite: There wasn’t anything United could do, and he needed to talk to Lufthansa. Lufthansa did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.
«It felt like we were in this weird loop where each person was adamant that they couldn’t do anything about it,» Iweala, the mother of the family, told Insider, speaking of the United and Lufthansa employees they contacted.
Spector said everyone he spoke to on the phone wanted to help, but United representatives told him there wasn’t anything they could do to help since they didn’t have the power to override the airline’s computer systems. «United has such restrictive computer systems, the system simply wouldn’t do what they needed it to do to fix the problem,» Spector said.
«It was mind-bogglingly frustrating,» he added.
The family reached a dead-end. After a few hours on the phone, no one could come up with a solution. By this time, the airport was closed for the day, so the family headed back to Iweala’s mother’s house.
«We offered several options and ultimately rebooked the family on Turkish Airlines,» a United representative said.
The family’s new itinerary left the following day and would take them from Abuja to Istanbul, Turkey. From Istanbul, they would go to Munich, Germany, then Washington, DC, and finally Durham.
The family successfully boarded their flight to Istanbul, where they had an hour-and-a-half layover before boarding a plane for Munich. However, due to the delays caused by the military coup in Niger, Spector said the family missed their connecting flight out of the Turkish city. «The hour-and-a-half layover was inevitably going to fail,» he said.
Spector said a Turkish Airlines staff member initially suggested the family circumnavigate the entire globe, but he vetoed that idea. Finally, the airline booked the family on a flight out of Istanbul to New York, then on to Durham, Spector said.
The family arrived home two days later than expected on August 14, Spector said.
Altogether, he said the family spent more than $10,000 getting home from Abuja — $4,000 more than originally planned.
Spector said he hopes to get a refund for the entire flight, but at minimum would like $4,000 back, which he said includes the cost of hotels in New York and Istanbul, seat upgrades for flights they didn’t board, and transportation costs to get to and from their hotel in Long Island, New York.
Additionally, Spector is requesting a refund for their baggage fees on the Turkish Airlines flight. The family spent $644 to get their bags home, Spector said — a fee that would’ve been covered if they had boarded their original flight, according to the father of three. Turkish Airlines did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.
In a statement sent to Insider, a United representative told Insider that the company «refunded all seat upgrade charges for the changed flights,» and that the baggage charges were based on the carrier, which in this case was Turkish Airlines.
As of Tuesday, Spector said he has submitted a refund request but hasn’t received any money back. He also said his bank statement doesn’t show a charge or refund for the family’s premium-economy upgrade and that he hasn’t received a refund on the business-class upgrade for the original flight they expected to take from Abuja to Frankfurt.
Spector and Iweala both said they want to know why this couldn’t have been prevented, or fixed once the issue was brought to United’s and Lufthansa’s attention. Those they spoke to at both airlines understood the issue, the couple said, but couldn’t find a way within the computer systems to figure out a solution.
«For me, that’s the biggest thing that stands out,» Iweala said. «They’re so desperately trying to help but they’re handcuffed.»
For future flights, the couple said they’ll be sticking to one airline.
This summer, Trevor Boffone, a teacher from Texas, told Insider he was part of a group of 31 students, teachers, and parents that were stranded in Japan and had to take a 48-hour journey around the world to get back home.
The group had finished a nine-day tour of Japan hosted by EF Tours. They were scheduled to fly out of Osaka’s domestic airport to Tokyo with Japan Airlines — American Airlines’ partner airline — before flying to Dallas, and then finally Houston.
But when they arrived at the Japan Airlines check-in desk in Osaka, they were told they didn’t have tickets.
The flights were booked through EF Tours and the group had a confirmed reservation for the flights when they showed up at the airport.
In a statement sent to Insider, a Japan Airlines representative said the tour agency had requested the tickets «but unfortunately the flight was already full and we were not able to make a reservation for the passengers on this record.» The representative added that «we believe the tour agency was aware of that situation.»
In a statement sent to Insider, an EF Tours representative said, «We regret that the group’s flights were disrupted due to what appears to have been a booking miscommunication between American Airlines and Japan Airlines. EF Tours’ booking records have always designated the group’s flights as confirmed in our system.» American Airlines did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.
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