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Flight Canceled: Not Enough Passengers?

Q. I was on a JFK hotel shuttle when I overheard a conversation. Apparently, a couple of travelers had just returned from London.

The fellow who flew Norwegian mentioned that they cancelled his outbound flight simply because there weren't enough passengers on the trip. Norwegian flew them out the next day but of course they missed several events they had bought tickets in advance to see.

And Norwegian made no restitution. One of the passengers was an attorney who took names and wants to sue.

Can Norwegian cancel flights solely at their discretion and, if so, not pay its passengers anything? Can they be sued for this? This fellow made the point of saying it wasn't mechanical or weather related. Just the number of passengers.

A. I’m surprised that they would cancel a flight with not enough passengers since presumably that plane was scheduled to fly to JFK and pick up passengers for the return trip.

Airlines can cancel flights for any reason however European Union law stipulates that passengers are entitled up to 600 Euros in compensation. This is the case even if departing from the US, so long as the flight is traveling to/from somewhere in the EU. Even if the fare is purchased from a US-based airline but an EU-airline operates the flight (for example, you buy on American but the flight is operated by British Airways). You'll find more on these passenger protections here.

Name Changes Not Allowed

Q. I booked a flight to Berlin with my friends for January, It’s nearly December and I've just found out I can’t go. I want to change the name on my ticket and gift it to a friend. Why won’t my airline allow this?

A. Very few airlines allow name changes. Among the ones that do, even less are willing to do it for free. Sometimes it depends on the fare you paid.

If name changes were universally allowed, some enterprising person would buy up dozens or perhaps hundreds of seats at the lowest fares and then resell them (with a name change) to other passengers when the fares are higher, such as for last minute travel. This would make for chaos in the airlines’ booking procedures and result in a loss of revenue.

It would essentially create a “ticket tout” marketplace similar to what concert or sports event attendees experience.

Proof of Credit Card Used to Purchase Ticket

Q. We bought an airline ticket for our teenage son using a credit card and sent him off to the airport. Even though he had a boarding pass printed at home and checked in online, when he got to the airport the airline asked him to show the credit card used to purchase the ticket. Luckily, my husband was available to rush to the airport to provide the card. Otherwise, he would have had to buy a new ticket or not fly. Why did the airline do this, and do all airlines require a credit card to be shown?

A. The only reason I can think of is to prevent fraud, but as you say, your son checked in online and had a boarding pass. I asked my twitter followers if they had ever had this happen to them, and quite a few said yes. It’s fairly rare, but the worst that usually happens is the passenger must buy a new fare and get reimbursed when the original credit card is produced. Anyone who buys a ticket for a third party should be prepared to show the credit card used to purchase it.

Are Pet Fees Too High?

Q. I recently flew to Florida and brought along my 7lb dog. I spent more on my pet's ticket than I paid for mine. He had to stay under the seat in his carrier, and the airline counted him against my carry-on allowance. How is it that a baby can fly for free, sit on your lap, and the parents are allowed to bring several huge baby bags? They even get to board first!

A. It does seem unfair, doesn’t it? But a handful of incidents over the last few years may help to explain why airlines charge such fees. A service animal pooped twice in the aisle, causing an emergency landing, which is very costly for an airline. In another incident, a pet escaped its cage and bit a flight attendant and another passenger. As you can imagine this probably led to a law suit and a hefty financial settlement. So although I’m sure your pet is the best behaved animal in the world, there are costs associated with having pets on planes. Some passengers are allergic and if an allergy results in an emergency landing or a claim against the airline, there are costs involved.

Extra Insurance for Checked Baggage

Q. How does “excess valuation” work when checking a bag on an airline and is it worthwhile to buy it?

A. Excess valuation is basically extra insurance that you can buy when you check in your luggage. It’s over and above any liability that the airline is required to pay if your bag and its contents are lost or damaged. On domestic U.S. flights, the airline’s standard liability is no more than $3,500. By paying a relatively small fee, you can up the coverage to $5,000 on most airlines. Delta, for example charges $40 to boost coverage from $3,500 to $4000 and an additional $50 for coverage from $4000 to $5000. For most people, it’s not worth buying on domestic flights. But where it’s very useful is for international flights, because airline liability is much less when traveling outside the U.S. Delta, for example, charges $10 for each $1000 of coverage up to $5000. Beware though: you’re still not covered for cash, camera equipment, commercial effects, electronics, jewelry, works of art or other valuables, and the coverage only extends to a Delta destination, the first Delta stopover, or your point of transfer to another airline. You need to buy the coverage each time you check a bag.

Out of Luck? Injured Without Trip Insurance

Q. My husband and I were booked to go on a cruise earlier this fall, which we had to cancel due to my husband having an accident four days before we were meant to depart. His doctors would not clear him to fly from Los Angeles to Seattle, and then onward to Vancouver for a cruise.

Unfortunately, we did not have travel insurance. Upon speaking to our rep with Holland cruises, she said there is no refund and no rescheduling allowed 30 days or less from departure. To add insult to injury (literally!) they would not refund the hotels we had booked for our stay in Seattle. Nothing apart from the taxes and port fees has been refunded.

Other than sucking it up, do we have any recourse? We have asked our Holland rep to put us in contact with their corporate department who deals with concerns/complaints. We have medical verification for the injury. Can we do anything else? I know most hotels will allow a 24 hour cancellation without charge. We gave Holland four days notice. Surely, they will be getting a refund from the hotels, and possibly other excursions/bookings, but we are not.

 A. There still may be hope if you charged the cruise to one of the many credit cards that offer free, built-in cancellation coverage for scenarios just like yours. Many people don't read the fine print, but a number of credit card issuers actually provide a wide range of travel insurance whenever you use their cards to buy a trip. More about that here.

The Best Booking Options for Round-the-World Tickets

Q. I remember years ago one could buy a "round-the-world" ticket at a reasonable price. You could stop anywhere as long as it was in one direction, and you had a year to use it. With tickets being bought online these days I dont know how to figure out the least expensive round the world ticket.

We would like to buy one for our daughter who is graduating from college at the end of the semester, though she might not be using it until next spring. Any comments or thoughts on this subject would be greatly appreciated!

A. You can search online through your preferred airline alliance (OneWorld, SkyTeam, Star Alliance...) but rules and restrictions are awfully complicated for RTW ticketing. Generally, the passenger must travel in the same direction, no backtracking allowed. Some plans go by miles, others by segments, stops, continents. You might find it easier to give your choice of airline a call or, better still, drop by the nearest ticketing office to plan it out in person. Another option (and most likely the least expensive) is to book through a company that specializes in planning such trips. AirTreks is an excellent place to begin, and offers more varied itineraries with fewer restrictions.

One Carry On, One Personal Item

Q. I plan on flying with my purse, my laptop case, and with my wheeled bag. Would three items be too much for carry-ons? My purse and laptop always go under the seat and my bag in the overhead compartment.

A. Unfortunately, many airlines would prohibit you from carrying on three items. I was recently stopped from boarding with a suitcase, backpack and a shopping bag. Luckily, I was able to cram the contents of the shopping bag into the other two items but the gate agent was not very pleasant about it. So I recommend putting the laptop in your wheeled suitcase, or doing whatever it takes to satisfy the 1 carry-on/1 personal item rule.

The Trouble with Airline Vouchers

Q. Earlier this year, I was flying Delta from Atlanta to Philadelphia when an agent asked me if I'd be interested in getting off the flight in exchange for a $300 voucher and taking a later flight. I agreed and was given the $300 voucher, good for 12 months. My plan was to use the voucher on an overseas trip with my family within the year. However, Delta did not honor the voucher when the family trip was booked because the trip was through Delta's vacation club. So, now I have only a couple weeks left on this non-transferable, non-extendable voucher. Unfortunately, I'm unable to travel within the next couple of weeks due to business commitments.
 
Is there any recourse for me, outside of losing value of the voucher?
 
A. If you were bumped due to an oversell situation, you should definitely not have been given a voucher. Delta should have given you cash. Airlines have been fined by the US DOT for offering vouchers rather than cash in oversell situations. Read this for example.

If you were indeed bumped because of an oversell, you should contact the airline and inform them that they were in violation of DOT rules and ask that the voucher be made into an all-cash compensation.

The Last to Board

Q. I always seem to end up in the last group called to board the plane. And I've actually seen plenty of people who board before their group is called or before their rows are called, and yet they are allowed to board whenever they approach the podium. Why do almost all airlines not actually enforce their boarding procedures? I'm okay boarding a little later but I don't like being edged even further back in the process because some people are lying and the people in charge don't call them on it! In the interest of fairness, what can I do? And why does this always happen?

A. I have seen airline personnel enforce these rules, but they don’t make passengers remain seated until their boarding group or row is called. So eager passengers crowd the boarding area, making it difficult for passengers who need to board. I suspect that employees just don’t want to make a scene and the airline doesn’t have the personnel to enforce common courtesy at the boarding area. And you’re right, more and more people have priority boarding, now that you can buy your way to the front of the line with various credit card perks and extra fees.

Above image via Shutterstock

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