Sunday, January 4, 2009

Airline Agony

Photo by Erin and Lance Willett

After a wonderful week-long visit with my sister and niece, we bundled them off to the airport on Monday, where their nightmarish journey home began.

Let me just start by saying that she called to reconfirm their flight and that she arrived two hours early for her originating flight. The weather was in the 40s and clear--a relief after the two snowstorms they had braved on the way out.

An hour before their flight was scheduled to leave, we said goodbye at security. Three hours after that, she sent me a text message that they were still on the tarmac. I thought she meant at her connecting airport, but she was still in our city.

When she arrived at the connecting airport (where, incidentally, the weather was clear), she and her daughter sprinted from one end of the airport to another to try to catch their once-daily connection to the opposite coast city where they live.

They got to the gate. The jetbridge door was open, but there were no agents. They sped down the jetway. An attendant caught up. "Sorry, ma'am, the doors are closed."

After literally hours waiting in various lines, the airline customer service agents told them they would have to spend TWO days in their connecting city, because the flight the next day was oversold as well. The airline did not try to reroute them on other flights or other airlines. And, get this, they only offered them a voucher for one night's hotel stay (not in the city of the airport, buy the way, but in the middle of nowhere), though they would have to wait two nights for their flight. Huh? And the agent made a big deal about how this was special and no one else was getting vouchers. According to the agent, it is the passenger's responsibility to make sure they are in the gate area at least 10 minutes before boarding. Huh again? Even though my sister and niece were delayed on one of their own planes? (The delay was attributed to air traffic at the connecting city.)

After many mobile phone conferences, I suggested that the airline fly them back to where they started. If they were going to be stuck, why not with family? But no, that wasn't doable.

My sister is not a frequent traveller. So she didn't realize that there was no possibility that her luggage was also at the connection city. She went to baggage claim, called the hotel for which she had a voucher and was told, "Oh, we don't accept airline vouchers--I don't know why they keep sending us people."

By this time, my sister was tired and worried. She discovered that their bags were not at baggage claim, went to the agent, and, well, she started to cry. (I might have too at this point.) The baggage claim agent gave them toiletries kits to tide them over, called the airline manager, who called the hotel manager, who verified that the hotel in question DID accept their vouchers.

At 10 pm, they boarded a shuttle (filled with voucher recipients, by the way) to East Palookaville. By 11:30 pm, they were in their room.

In the meantime, our fairy stepmother (or she seems to be sometimes--see this story for an example--she had bankrolled the trip) had managed to call the travel agent who had made the reservation and get them on the next day's flight.

Tuesday, they boarded the last hotel shuttle for the airport at noon. Their flight was scheduled for 6pm. They didn't feel adventurous enough to go into the city, so the plan was to shop and try a Philly cheesesteak. Mmmmmm.

Photo by lil'bear

But I digress...

The flight was delayed (for non-weather related reasons) for 4.5 hours. They arrived home safely 30 hours after their scheduled arrival.

So what to do?

Here's what I suggested. Write a letter to US Airways. Describe the bad experiences in detail. (They had another missed flight on the outbound fight that again wasn't their fault and that connected through the same inept airport.) Send copies of the receipts for food. (Did I mention they were not offered meal vouchers?)

Cite Rule 240, which is a little-known rule left over from the days before airline deregulation quoting the airline's own policy of reimbursing passengers for trips that arrive more than 4 hours after their scheduled time. (They were scheduled to arrive at 9:40 pm Monday. They arrived at 3:30 am Wednesday. I think they qualify).

Some travel experts recommend that passengers travel with a printed copy of Rule 240 (there's a different one for each airline, and some are discontinuing them altogether), or, better, the airline's contract of carriage, which you can often get on their web site.

Request compensation. Airlines are much more likely to give a travel voucher for a free flight in response to a well-reasoned and civil letter than to an angry mob at the counter. My hope would be that they get two domestic travel vouchers and reimbursement for their meals.

My ten-year-old niece was a real trooper through the whole ordeal. But they were prepared. They had healthy snacks with them (nuts, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, fruit). She had entertainment: two books, a Nintendo DS (but they packed the charger, so it didn't last the entire trip), and a book of travel activities.

Further Reading:
"Airlines' Rule 240: Myth or magic bullet?" by Christopher Elliott, Tribute Media Services

"Fights Cancelled, Delayed, and Rule 240,"
by Arlene Fleming,

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