Missing the Pointe-a-Pitre

by Christopher Elliott on February 15, 2004

Q: My girlfriend and I were flying from Newark to Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe, via San Juan on American Airlines in December. But our flight out of Newark was late and we missed our connection in San Juan. We were told that the next flight, which left the following day, was full but that we should wait and try to get on the flight anyway.

An airline representative asked us to pick up our luggage at the baggage claim area and to return tomorrow. But we couldn’t find our luggage.

The next day, with our luggage still missing, we were denied boarding on the Pointe-a-Pitre flight. We were told that we could try to fly standby again the next day, but that we would not be given priority and that all flights to Pointe-a-Pitre were full for the next week.

An airline agent proposed that instead of a short flight from San Juan to Pointe-a-Pitre, we spend an entire day flying to St. Lucia, then to Dominica where we would take a ferry to Pointe-a-Pitre, then a taxi from the ferry terminal to the airport to claim our luggage. We were promised that we would reach our final destination on the day of departure from San Juan, so we agreed to the arrangements.

Late in the day we received one suitcase, but another bag was still missing.

So we took a flight from San Juan to St. Lucia and then continued to Melville Hall, Dominica. But when we arrived, our passports were confiscated and we were detained at customs because we did not have a ticket to leave Dominica. Why not? Because American promised we would be greeted when we arrived and issued a ferry voucher.

We were detained for 3½ hours, without our passports and without food before we were finally released to an airline agent, who knew nothing about our situation. We were held in the American Airlines office for an additional 4½ hours before we were informed that because of a ferry strike, it was not possible to take a ferry to Pointe-a-Pitre. So we would have to fly there – but not until the next flight left the following day.

The next day, the taxi driver arranged by the airline did not show up to take us to the airport. We were given a voucher with only the driver’s name on it, so no other taxi drivers would honor it and we were responsible for our own transportation to the airport. When we arrived in Pointe-a-Pitre, we found the missing luggage sitting unattended in the baggage claim area.

As if that wasn’t enough, our return flight to San Juan arrived an hour late, and we missed our connecting flight to Newark again. After waiting an hour for our luggage so that we could pass through customs and recheck the bags, we were informed that our luggage couldn’t be located and that we should rebook the missed connection without it. There were no more available flights to Newark that day and that the next possible flight left the next morning. Unable to miss another day of work, we had to accept a much later flight into JFK.

We arrived in New York at midnight without our luggage, which contained our winter jackets. Our belongings were delivered to us two days later, at 2 a.m. What was meant to be an enjoyable and relaxing vacation turned into nightmare, and now American Airlines isn’t responding to my letters, faxes and calls. Can you help me?

– Bruno Lamarre

A: Your trip sounds like the airline equivalent of the perfect storm – a confluence of delays, bungled communications and incompetence that created the worst possible trip.

But your initial delay out of Newark was the proverbial domino setting in motion a series of events that prolonged your trip by four days.

American Airlines’ conditions of carriage – its terms of transportation – is clear about what happens in the event of a delay: you’ll be rerouted on the next available American flight with available seats. If the delay was caused by events within the airline’s control and you don’t get to your final destination on the expected arrival day, American will also provide “reasonable” overnight accommodations.

American apparently did all that, and more. It lost your luggage. It left you holding the bill for a taxi ride. It tied you up in customs, where you were treated like illegal immigrants. Good thing its contract has a clever waiver for those snags: “We are not responsible for any special, incidental or consequential damages,” it stipulates.

But here’s where traveling with a copy of the contract may have helped you (you can easily make a printout from the American Web site). The delay clause also provides for amenities for passengers, “necessary to maintain the safety and/or welfare.” To me, if your baggage goes missing, that doesn’t just mean a hotel room and transportation to and from the airport is covered – which, by your account, American provided – but also clothes and incidentals such as toothpaste and shampoo.

You can’t go back and ask for these extras now that the trip is over. But you could have requested them while you were there and American would have had to furnish them to you under its contract.

When I contacted American Airlines, it said it was already investigating your claim, but it didn’t tell me why it had taken more than five weeks to acknowledge your phone calls and correspondence (I mean, the very least it could have done was to send you an e-mail saying, “We’re looking into it.”)

Its response to you, which it copied me on, was apologetic – to a point. No explanation was offered for the miscommunication between airline employees in San Juan and Melville Hall, except to say, “There is no question that you were inconvenienced.”

Well, that’s putting it mildly.

No refund was offered on the cab fare to the airport in Dominica. Instead, the carrier issued two flight vouchers good for a future American Airlines flight. “The next time you travel with us, I know we’ll restore your confidence in our ability to get you and your baggage where you are going – as planned,” added customer service agent J. G. Teel in an e-mail to you.

Assuming there is a next time.

American should be commended for sending you a personal response. I read enough canned letters every day to know which ones are real and which ones aren’t. Someone actually appeared to have written most of this letter, which I think is a sign of genuine concern.

The airline did everything it had to under its contract, and I don’t take issue with its response so much as I do with the fine print in its agreement with customers (it leaves far too much wiggle-room for situations like yours) and, of course, the timing.

Note to American: When a customer is delayed four days on a perfect trip from hell, don’t wait five weeks to respond. Otherwise, your passengers will start complaining to me, and do you really want that?

Even though American followed the letter of its law, I think it missed the spirit of its contract. When someone misses four days of their vacation the way you did, it’s OK to do more than send an apology and funny money that you’re unlikely to ever use.

I also think airline contracts are inherently flawed, because they’re written by airline lawyers. Cases such as yours suggest we need a contract reform similar to what the European Union is currently undertaking, which calls for a standardized agreement that compels airlines to meet their most basic customer service obligations.

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