Airline Problems

Airline Problems

Q. As you're aware, United's fares have not been available on Travelocity's Flex Search option. I called United for a response, and they say it's Travelocity's website, so it's their problem. I called Travelocity, which has only an overseas general service Customer line (you can't get past them to any other department), and their response is that United hasn't provided any flex search fares. This answer doesn't make sense, since United has fares available if you use any exact date search. Neither company wants to admit thats somethings amiss. Could United be purposely holding back cheaper fares so that only more expensive fares can be bought at Travelocity? Any thoughts on this, or how I can pursue this further?

A. Here's the answer I got from a Travelocity spokesperson: "Without getting into any details at this time, this is a temporary situation that we are working on. Thanks and please let me know if you have any additional questions." So I did ask an additional question, namely, "Is this a technical issue or a commercial one?" So far I haven't gotten an answer, but it's certainly costing flexible flyers a lot of money. Meanwhile, you can find United's fares using's flexible search function.

Q. In late July of 2005 I made reservations for eight people to go on a Carnival cruise departing January 29th. Four of us will be flying together on American Airlines from Springfield, IL to Orlando, FL to meet the ship. When I made the reservations in July our return flight was scheduled to depart Orlando around 4:45PM on the day the cruise ends so the timing was ideal. However, without consulting us, American Airlines changed our return departure to 11:40AM and just notified us of this via email on Christmas day.

The cruise line says it is impossible for us to get off the ship and travel from Port Canaveral to the Orlando airport in time to catch our flight. American Airlines says they have removed the 4:45PM flight from their schedule forever and that the last flight of the day to get us home is the 11:40AM flight. So unless we go with another airline we have to spend the night in Orlando and fly home a day later, which means we have to stay in a hotel for the night.

I asked American Airlines to cover the hotel room since it is 100 percent their fault that we have to stay and incur the expense of a hotel room. They absolutely refuse to do this, citing their policies as the reason. I explained that it was not our policy to have to stay an extra night in Florida because the airline canceled our flight. I spoke with a customer service representative and a supervisor and all they would do is move us to the same flight the next day.

At this late date I am sure we are going to have to pay penalties and a premium price for airfare if we elect to go with another airline, so I feel like we are stuck with American Airlines for this trip. Do we have any recourse? If so, can you advise us what to do?

A. As you probably figured out already, you'd have to pay United $120 more to fly you back on the day the cruise ends. If you somehow made it to Chicago fares would be a lot less ($190 round-trip) but I realize that's a drive. What would I do were I in the same situation? I'd ask American to assign my ticket over to United at no extra cost. Although American might not be obligated to pay for your hotel, I think they definitely should try to get you on a later United flight at their own cost, much as they would be obligated if there were any other flight "irregularity" that was in their control (and certainly, a schedule change that the airline initiates falls under that category).

Write them a letter, registered, and copy their legal department. Tell them you plan to sue them in small claims court for your costs if they don't satisfy you. I'm serious. Send a copy to the president of the airline and another to customer service.

You might also try calling the local station manager in Springfield and ask him or her to intervene. Sometimes solutions can be found on the local level in situations like this. In fact,

John Theodor, the General Manager of American Connection, the AA regional carrier in Springfield, commented:

"I wish they would have contacted the AA ticket counter directly. The dissatisfaction they received by speaking with sales over the phone could have been easily rectified in person locally. Please urge your readers to explore this option if contacting the airline by phone or email does not help. I was just as surprised as the letter writer that American would not honor their request in accommodating them on United. Schedule change policies vary somewhat by carrier, however; in a case such as this, accommodation on another carrier to avoid a change of date interruption is normally granted."

Q. I just had a bad experience with Alaska Airlines and wonder if you have any advice: I missed a return flight from Ontario, CA to Portland, OR last Saturday night (it was my fault, because I had changed a return flight from Phoenix owing to a last minute family situation and had the wrong departure time. Certainly not an excuse, but if they can't accommodate an occasional human foible why should I accommodate them when they inconvenience me?).

I had to be back because I was substituting for two church services beginning 7:30 AM the next day. Alaska would let me fly out Sunday for no additional charge but flights could not get me to my commitment in time. United had a flight connecting through San Francisco and would accept my electronic ticket. All I needed was Alaska to "push the button" to transfer my fare.

However, Alaska would not accommodate me. The agent said she would get into trouble if she did it "because Alaska would lose the revenue." As a result I had to pay for the United ticket (my one-way on Alaska would have been about $115, the United fare was over $200).

Needless to say I am not happy with Alaska over this. Do I have any recourse or what do you recommend?

A. Well, since Alaska wasn't involved at all in the missed flight, there's not much of a "case" to build. Let's say it were their fault, or it were the weather's fault – even in that situation some airlines are loathe to sign over tickets to a competitor. You have to beg and scream. You might try writing them; they might send you a good will voucher. Who knows? I just don't think they were obligated to forgo revenue (they'd have to pay United to fly you) simply because you missed your flight. It's a bit like if you bought a new TV from Best Buy and dropped it on the way home, and then asked Circuit City to replace it.

Here's their contract of carriage on refunds and reroutings for your future reference.

Q. I bought a ticket on United via Travelocity and a few weeks before the flight I was informed that United had stopped flying the route entirely. So I was forced to buy a much higher fare on Alaska Airlines. This seems unfair. Shouldn't United just endorse my ticket over to Alaska at the same fare I originally paid? Should I complain to Travelocity or United? I've contacted both parties but just gotten form letters back.

A. This is happening a lot these days as airlines abandon unprofitable routes. I suggest you write or call again. I will contact Travelocity on your behalf to see if we can grease the wheels. And I'd ask United for a voucher, good for future travel, to cover the fare difference between your original ticket and the new, higher ticket on Alaska. In my opinion, it's the least they can do.

Follow up: This passenger eventually received a $250 credit from United and a $50 voucher from Travelocity. I was surprised at how well he made out, but I think he deserves it.

Q. Do you know any tricks to getting upgraded on flights? I was upgraded from business to first class on Virgin Atlantic two summers ago from Miami to London. My friend said that I was "suitable for upgrade" because I was traveling alone, and when Virgin has overbooked economy, single travelers get priority to being upgraded. I'll be traveling again this summer and wondered if there is anything I can do to get the upgrade again?

A. That's interesting, since Virgin has a business class product but doesn't have first class (I'm sort of messing with you: their business class cabin, which they call Upper Class, is better than some airlines' first class, so no wonder you're confused). You're absolutely right that traveling alone is key, because they might just have one seat in business for upgrading. There's no surefire way to get those "oversell" upgrades, but it certainly doesn't hurt to ask nicely when checking in ("Hi, just in case economy is oversold today I'd like to volunteer to be upgraded; I'm traveling alone and I flew Virgin's Upper Class last summer and it's the best experience I've ever had in airplane!") and it doesn't hurt if you don't look like a slob. Sometimes check-in people take pity on you if you're really tall, too, or pregnant, but there's not much you can do if you're not (elevator heels, perhaps?). And a woman I know who works for a large European airline tells me that all else (frequent flyer program status, etc.) being equal she upgrades "the cute ones" in such circumstances. So it pays to look your best.

Q. Last week I was on Northwest Flight 1 from Los Angeles to Tokyo, connecting to Northwest 27 to Bangkok. When flight 1 landed at Narita and before the doors were opened, an announcement was made for me to see ground staff at the foot of the stairs. The agent was waiting for me - sign and all - and told me that NW 27 was overbooked and I was being put on another airline to Bangkok - everything prearranged - ticket, seat assignment, etc. This was done without even asking if I would relinquish my confirmed seat for which I already had a boarding pass. I always thought that if the airline overbooked they had to ask for passengers who would be willing to relinquish their seat and offer some compensation. I don't know if this qualifies as being 'bumped' but it certainly felt that way to me. I asked for compensation not once but several times and the only thing they offered was 2000 frequent flyer miles. I told them that to add 2000 miles to the one million already in my account was an insult. I had one of the best seats in economy class on NW 27, row 10 which is just behind business class with extra leg room and a quick exit when arriving in Bangkok for a quicker pass through the long immigration lines in Bangkok. True, the service on ANA was many times better than on Northwest and the food service much better. And the ANA flight departed Tokyo two hours before the Northwest flight. So how I should handle a complaint about this? Am I entitled to compensation?

A. Interesting story. I'm sure Northwest thought they were doing you a huge favor by putting you on a flight that arrived two hours earlier than your original flight. Honestly, if I had the choice I'd probably go for it without complaint, and of course ANA is a better airline. So I would have been thrilled. Domestically, the airlines would be required to ask for volunteers and compensate you for taking away your seat. But that's only if they cause a delay by bumping you and it only applies in the US. Europe has its own (more stringent rules) and I don't believe there are any pan-Asian agreements at all. In this case, quite to the contrary, they got you there sooner than originally scheduled. So I'm afraid you wouldn't get very far complaining. Just take the 2,000 miles and cheer up.

Q. Earlier this month, my family traveled to Hartford, CT to participate in the US Junior Olympics for fencing. We flew a United code share on US Airways from Richmond, VA to Hartford, CT via Philadelphia. When we arrived in Hartford, we found that our two equipment bags had not arrived on our flight (each one about the size of a travel golf bag).

The equipment bags did not arrive until the next afternoon, but were needed that morning in order to compete in our first event. Needless to say, my daughter had to withdraw from her event.

What steps should we have taken with US Airways during this trip to expedite the delivery of the equipment and how can we prevent these things from occurring in the future?

A. Unfortunately, there's not much you could have done to have US Airways get the equipment bags to you any faster, as it's generally their policy to put the bag on the first flight to your destination. According to a recent article in USA Today, airlines lose or misplace 10,000 or more bags a month, and the problem is getting worse, not better.

In the future, I'd suggest sending the equipment through a service like Sports Express (800/357-4174), a company that specializes in luggage and sports equipment delivery. They'll pick up your equipment from your home and deliver to your destination. I did a quick quote and the delivery of two standard golf cases (since they didn't have the option of a fencing bag). Charges would begin at $116 one-way for the three-day economy service. That may sound steep, but I imagine if you had enough bags to check and you were over the weight or maximum bag limit, then the airline would charge you excess baggage fees anyway, which are not cheap these days. Just have the equipment delivered ahead of time in care of your hotel or wherever else you're staying

Q. As a college student, I frequently fly during the summer on vacations and to visit relatives. Whenever possible, I like to volunteer to give up my seat when a flight has been overbooked. I have done this three times on United flights and have found that I have been compensated enough to make it worth the trouble. So, I would actually like to increase the odds of buying tickets on flights that might end up overbooked. Any advice?

A. I suppose one strategy is to buy refundable tickets only and book them on routes that are always jam packed. If you don't get bumped you can ask for a ticket refund and then book another ticket. Try to choose flights that you know are already heavily booked. Usually, you can identify these flights because the airline won't give you a firm seat assignment. Fly on peak travel days and times (Thursday, Friday, Sunday, Monday).

Q. I checked in for a flight to Ft. Lauderdale to catch a 10-day Caribbean cruise, and I wanted to make sure I had enough clothes and shoes for all the activities and formal nights. So I had four bags to check plus my carryon. My airfare was a reasonable $98 round-trip, but the airline ended up charging me several times that because I had too many bags, plus one of them was too big, and one was too heavy. How could I have avoided these charges?

A. Hey, the airlines have to make money somehow to compensate for those ridiculously low fares. Take a look at United Airlines' excess baggage fees: they'll carry for free two bags measuring no more than 62 linear inches all around (say, a bag measuring no more than 20 inches wide by 30 inches long by 12 inches deep) and weighing no more than 50 pounds. For each additional bag, you'll pay $80 each, assuming they're not oversized or overweight. If a bag exceeds 62 linear inches, that's an extra $80 on top of the extra bag fee. And if the bag weighs over 50 pounds, that's another $25. Oh, and that's each way, not round-trip.

Next time: before you leave, check your airline's oversized and excess baggage policy on line. Weigh your bags on the bathroom scale. If one is overweight, see if you can shift some of the contents into a bag that's not over the limit. Also, if you're traveling domestically it might cost you less to ship some of your luggage by UPS or Fedex Ground, or through the good old US Post Office. Or use a baggage expediting service (and this especially applies to the reader who wrote concerning his paragliding equipment) such as Sports Express (, which will ship a large duffle bag measuring up to 88 linear inches and weighing up to 80 pounds for $91 (based on three day service from Boston to New York), a bag that United would charge you $185 for were this the third of three such bags. Oh, and learn how to pack light. Check out

Q. I checked in for my flight and the gate agents announced there would be a two hour delay because the incoming crew was delayed coming in on another flight. So I went off to roam the bookstores and get a meal. When I returned an hour later, the flight had left without me. The next two flights were full, so I missed an important meeting. The airline was totally unsympathetic. Shouldn't the airline be held responsible?

A. A little two way communication goes a long way," says Todd Burke of JetBlue Airways. "Airlines should warn people not to wander too far, and passengers should check in with gate agents for frequent updates," he advises. "You can always give your mobile phone number to a fellow passenger or an agent and ask them to call you if an earlier departure time is announced." To prevent this from happening again, the obvious solution is not to wander off at all, or if there are two or more of you traveling someone should remain at the gate to stand guard.

Q. Do all airlines charge the same to change the travel dates of a non-refundable ticket?

A. No. Southwest charges nothing. Delta and some other older carriers charge $50 for domestic tickets and up to $200 for international ones. United charges $100 for domestic tickets, and $150-$200 on international ones. However, Delta's Song airline charges just $25, perhaps to compete with JetBlue, which charges $20 to change any fare online. So if there's a chance you'll be changing your reservation, it might make sense to go with an airline with lower change fees.

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