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Entries during 2011-12

Canceled, just like that!

Q. Today I got an email that panicked me, rightfully as it turned out. Direct Air claimed they had tried to call me (false) and informed me that my February flight from Worcester, Mass. to San Juan was canceled, as in, they’re not flying the route any longer. Just like that. I paid a few months ago for these non-refundable tickets. I had booked a cruise and hotels (non-refundable this close to the departure) predicated solely on getting to Puerto Rico at this low fare. Can they really do this with no compensation at all? I searched and could not find a thing about this on the Web, or Dot.gov.

A. Yes, unfortunately the airlines are not regulated in such a scenario. They can cancel route, not just flights, at will, leaving passengers stranded and owing cancelation fees and other costs. As I’ve said before, it’s not really fair at all. Unfortunately, even travel insurance probably wouldn’t have covered you in this situation, unless you had bought a more expensive “cancel for any reason” policy. This is definitely an area where I’d like to see new consumer protections. Your only recourse is the collect your full refund from Direct Air and hope for a sale from Boston to San Juan on your dates of travel.

Compensation for Misplaced Baggage

Q. I am praying that you can help me out here. I took a flight on Continental from Newark to Chicago. I had a lap baby with me and when I got to the door of the plane to board I folded up my stroller and continued on with my rolling carry on and baby bag. The agent told me there was not enough room for the roller and it would need to go with my stroller. I threw some of my stuff (coat and boots etc.) into the bag and took the claim check issued for the bag. I assumed that I would have both my bag and stroller waiting for me at the door when I got off the plane. I was only given my stroller and was told the bag that they took from me at the door would be at the baggage claim. By the time i got my daughter in the stroller and down to baggage claim my bag was gone. There was another black rolling bag that looked just like mine left there and was not claimed by anyone. The agent told me that someone probably took my bag and would call them very soon and report the mix up. I waited a day and heard nothing. I kept calling and checking in to see the status of my bag and still nothing. They issued me $200 to buy a winter coat and boots and anything I would need to get by until they return my bag. It’s now two days later they say they have located it. Someone took my bag and continued on to Brazil. Now the airline says they are not responsible because someone took it and it had nothing to do with them. I packed my belongings in my carry on because I wanted to avoid this situation all together. Am I supposed to get the name of the passenger and go after them for theft? What are my options?

A. Remember in the good old days when there were personnel at the baggage claim exits to check your bag tag with your claim check? They were there to prevent exactly this kind of situation. The airlines paid for these people, but they’ve gone the way of many other niceties of flying. If your bag is truly lost (and I’m going to guess that you’ll eventually be reunited with it), you’re entitled to up to $3300 in compensation. But even if it’s merely displaced, a recent D.O.T. directive to the airlines states that even in the event of a delayed bag, you should get reasonable compensation for lost items that you cannot do without on your trip or when you get back home. You can find this ruling here. You need to show it to Continental and insist that they step up, and also tell them you’re reporting the incident to the D.O.T., which you can do here.

Fare-Drop Refunds

Q. My wife purchased a round-trip airfare a month ago on Frontier Airlines. Today I received an alert that the same itinerary is now $100 lower. She bought a “classic” fare (which is a discounted non-refundable fare), and they refuse to let her cancel and rebook at the lower fare. She can cancel the classic fare, but the $100 fare difference if she rebooks becomes a credit for future use. (There is no fee for cancelling the fare, but only the “classic plus” fare type is refundable). I know there is a lot of variability in this area these days and some airlines will refund if a lower fare is booked. Which airlines will give a full refund if a fare goes down between the time you buy it and the time you depart?

A. Frontier Airlines has three types of fares: “economy,” “classic,” and “classic plus.” The classic plus fares are fully refundable as you mentioned, and cost more than the other fares. No airline will actually give you money back when a fare goes down in price. But three U.S.-based airlines (Alaska, JetBlue and Southwest) will give you a credit, in the form of a voucher good for future travel, in the entire amount of the fare drop in such a circumstance. The other airlines deduct $100 to $150 on a domestic fare as a “service fee” or ticket change fee, so often any savings are wiped out. It looks like Frontier is offering the full refund on its classic and classic plus fares (but they charge a $50 rebooking fee for their “economy” fares). This may seem unfair but most retailers don’t offer price protection when a product goes down in price (prior purchases not included, reads the fine print), or if they do, it’s only for a short period. The airlines have been pretty good at offering fare drop credits, if not refunds, over the years, albeit, increasingly, with annoying service fees.

Cheapest Way to Fly to Europe?

Q. What is the least expensive way to get to continental Europe? Which airport is the least expensive to fly into?
 
A. One thing we've noticed is that it is often much cheaper ($500 less to cite a recent example) to fly into, say, Berlin on a given day than to, say, Frankfurt. So rather than having your heart set on arriving at a specific European airport, it’s wiser to look at every possible European destination from your home airport or nearby airports and fly there, and then take a bus, train, or discount European airline to your desired destination. Similarly, a fare from, say, Dallas to a given European city might be several hundred dollars more than from, say, Houston. So you could hop on a cheap Southwest flight between Dallas and Houston and save money. In general, partly due to lower airport fees and government taxes, Spanish airports such as Madrid are cheaper than London or Paris. Dublin and Shannon are also cheaper, although they don’t qualify as “continental” Europe. Istanbul and some Swiss cities have also been relatively cheaper lately.

24-Hour Correction Window

Q. I read that if a consumer buys are airfare and then realized it was for the wrong date that it would be possible to correct the mistake without paying a penalty. I booked the wrong date and immediately called Spirit Airlines but they still charged me $75 as a change fee. Can I get my money back?

A. New regulations recently proposed by the U.S. D.O.T. will require all airlines to permit consumers to reserve an airline seat without paying for it and lock in a fare for 24 hours, allowing the buyer to shop for a lower fare and correct any mistake that might have been made. However, some of these regulations have been put on hold at the request of the airlines. Many airlines, including United, Southwest, American, and Delta, already allow passengers to correct mistakes without penalty within 24 hours, and it looks like Spirit is not one of these, at least not until the new regulations take effect. You should ask Spirit to reconsider and at the very least offer a flight coupon good for future travel in the amount of the change fee, but to put it mildly, Spirit is not known for being sympathetic in such circumstances.

Rule 240: Not your choice of carrier

Q. I have read that some airlines, in the event of a flight delay or cancellation, will agree to fly passengers on a competing airline if that airline can arrange to fly the passenger to his destination sooner than the original airline. However, one thing that I can’t seem to find out is with whom exactly do certain airlines have agreements in case you need to be put on a competing airline.  Based on United Airlines' Rule 240 in its contract of carriage, it says they will transport you on "another carrier or combination of carriers with whom UA has agreements for such transportation."

However, we never get to find out who these “other carriers” are. Does it vary by route, by airport? I imagine since United is in the Star Alliance, those partner airlines are included. However, what others exist?  

My wife and two infant girls (along with an entire United 757) were cancelled on the tarmac in San Diego due to a maintenance issue. I asked to be rerouted on Virgin America or Southwest, which flew the same route we were scheduled to fly on.  The response was always “sorry, we don’t have an agreement with them” though United did offer to fully refund my money and then use that to buy a “walk-up” last minute fare on Southwest.

So where can I find information about which airlines will work with whom?  

A. First of all, most airlines either never had one or have done away with "Rule 240" in their contracts of carriage. Newer airlines such as Virgin America and JetBlue never had a Rule 240, which was a regulation required by the Civil Aeronautics Board when airlines were regulated by the U.S. government prior to 1978. United and Alaska Airlines are the only airlines I know of that still have the rule printed in their contracts. In general, the so called "legacy" carriers that flew during the era of airline regulation (American, US Airways, United, and Delta) are the only domestic U.S. carriers that regularly "interline" with each other and offer accommodation on each other in the event of a flight irregularity, but that doesn't mean that they will always rebook passengers on another airline. It doesn't hurt to ask, no matter what airline you're flying, however, since exceptions are sometimes made.

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