Did United Airlines Lose a Dead Body — or Just the Paperwork?

United Airlines has a horrible reputation transporting pets, whether it’s sending dogs to the wrong city, or keeping them unsafely on the tarmac for hours. They even, apparently, locked the world’s biggest rabbit in a freezer for hours and then cremated it without permission.

So it doesn’t surprise me that they don’t seem to do much better with dead bodies, either, at least if the tragic saga of Alma Sanchez is any indication.

Ms. Sanchez was killed in a highway accident 3 weeks ago three weeks ago in Texas. She was born in Houston but her family is in Mexico. Her co-workers raised $7000 so that her body could be sent to her family for burial. Then arrangements were made with United Airlines.

The woman’s remains were accepted for shipment by United, but “when employees of a funeral home in Mexico City went to pick up the body, they were told the paperwork was not there and they couldn’t take the body.”

The first story was the body was there, but United was going to keep it because they had lost the paperwork.

The second story was “that the woman’s body was actually sent to the wrong city.”

And for the next three days, Sanchez’s friend and co-worker Graciela Gonzalez said she got multiple stories from United Airlines about why the body couldn’t be picked up.

…”Her body is in Guadalajara, but no actually her documents are in Guadalajara, we’re gonna swap the bodies,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said while United tried to find the paperwork, Sanchez’s family had to delay the funeral.

In fact the body was there the whole time. And eventually United decided to give the woman’s family her remains, even though they hadn’t found the TPS reports the required documentation.

Just as United’s pet shipping program that loses pets is called ‘PetSafe’ their program for shipping human remains is called ‘TrustUA’.

United provided a statement to local Texas media,

Upon learning that we had sent inaccurate documents to Mexico City, we acted with urgency to provide corrected information. We have extended our deepest apologies to the family and provided a full refund.

It seems United’s idea of ‘urgency’ differs from that of Ms. Sanchez’s family, in so far as they had to postpone the funeral thanks to the lost paperwork.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. First, condolences to the family and friends of the victim.

    Now, lets look at the facts:
    1) $7,000 paid to transport the casket.
    2) Paperwork was lost.
    3) Funeral Home waited 3 days before this was resolved.
    4) United apologizes.

    1a) Of the $7,000, I don’t how much was paid to United, but I hope they aren’t actually profiting from their part of this service. If someone wants you to fly their casket, consider it a privilege, not a nuisance, and make sure the cost is as nominal as possible, so that when something like this happens, you don’t look or feel like a profiteer from your most vulnerable customers.
    1b) Nobody is price shopping this service, and nobody says “Oh, at that price, I am going to send 3 caskets from Houston to Mexico”, so don’t plan on this to be a strong part of your revenue model.
    2) ETickets were started like 20 years ago. Figure out how to manage the paperwork before you load the plane. Paperwork will get lost, mishaps will occur, make sure you have done your part to reassemble the pieces when things happen. Put labels on these items in multiple languages. Use numbers, develop methods to double check what you have done. Go back to the Video’s from security cameras if needed. If this is not the first time this has happened, then your system is so broken, you can just start over and assume that every bit of cargo you carry will get mishandled. The difference is that nobody cares about most of the cargo, so whatever system you use for cargo is good enough. But pets and caskets and other irreplaceable “cargo” is not “cargo”, it is only stored in the cargo area. Treat these shipments the same as unaccompanied minors or elderly that require assistance from United personnel, and hold those personnel accountable when something happens to these shipments.
    3) Three days in storage before completing the shipment… After 24 hours, someone within United should have been knocking on the door of the CEO (Chief Executive Officer, keyword being Executive) to ask him how he wants to write the press release on why a simple shipment involving irreplaceable cargo has not been completed. That’s not an email. That’s not a phone call. That is a personal visit to the CEO requiring immediate accountability and action.
    Certainly UAL has assigned a team to monitor and investigate all shipments involving pets, caskets, and similar irreplaceable cargo, because that is what a $30 billion dollar company does after making the news countless times in the past for lost shipments of this nature.
    4) Corporate apologies for recurring mishaps are practically meaningless. The refund is hardly a remedy since it presumes a service was actually provided. A few first class tickets for immediate family members might be more meaningful.

  2. United should make a substantial donation to a charity of the deceased lady’s family not just refund the outrageous fee paid. All airlines have “special” rates for corpse transfer. Usually a special rate is understood to be a cheaper rate. For dead bodies it means a multiple of the usual rate..

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