Sorry, wrong answer

by Christopher Elliott on August 27, 2003

Orbitz owes me $149

Q: Earlier this year we booked airline tickets from Des Moines, Iowa, to Orlando on Orbitz. We had to make two separate reservations because we are a family of five, and Orbitz wouldn’t let us book five tickets at a time.

The problems began when we received our travel documents approximately a week later showing two reservations under the same names – and three of us were left off the itineraries.

To fix the problem, we were informed that we would have to cancel the reservations and rebook with Northwest Airlines because there were no longer seats available on the original flight. The total difference in cost to us came to $149. We’d like a refund, but it’s been seven months since our trip. So far, we’ve received nothing.

– John Kolb

A: One of the limitations of Orbitz – and of many other online travel agencies – is that you can only book a limited number of tickets at a time. Interestingly, shortly after you traveled, the dot-com agency upgraded its site to allow you to book up to nine tickets in a single transaction.

I asked Orbitz to look into your case, and its records tell a somewhat different story. According to the site, you selected the names for the travelers. Orbitz says it delivered exactly what you purchased. But when you pointed out the error, the agency arranged to have the duplicate tickets voided, and advised you to rebook the tickets. Those new tickets cost an extra $149, due to the natural increase in airfare over time.

“The question is, should Orbitz offer compensation to customers who did not look over their itinerary carefully before clicking the purchase button?” asked an Orbitz spokeswoman.

I don’t think so.

But Orbitz says “yes”. It actually offered you a $100 travel voucher towards any future airline ticket booking with Orbitz, good for the next year. Orbitz has really gone out of its way to make you happy, even though the mistake was yours.

Orbitz didn’t have to do anything. It shouldn’t have done anything. It’s one thing to go out of your way to make a customer happy who’s truly been wronged. But compensating a traveler whose own mistake led to a problem? That’s excessively generous.

Nightmare flight on Northwest

Q: I flew on Northwest Airlines for the first time on a trip from Seattle to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., en route to a cruise. On our return flight to Detroit, I had the flight from hell.

Upon boarding the aircraft, I stowed my backpack and purse. I had my CD player in my hand and sat down to listen to it since the aircraft was still boarding. The flight attendant, Jackie, walked up to my row, poked me in the shoulder and ordered me to “Stow it, now!” She then made a show of speaking with the head flight attendant, with her eyes fixed on mine in a glare, about “all the teenagers on the flight,” and telling him he needed to “make an announcement that all passengers should stow their personal electronic equipment.”

Shortly after this, she sat a 6 year-old boy, who was traveling along, next to me. I expected to have a person seated next to me, but I did not bargain on baby-sitting a tyrant child.

I made sure the child was wearing his seatbelt. I made sure he had the lunch his mother packed for him, and it was my clothing he wiped his hands on, spilled on and got crumbs all over as he was eating. I kept the child company, and made sure I wiped his hands and face after he ate with my moist towelettes. My friend made sure he could use the restroom (after the flight attendant ignored his request to visit the bathroom) and washed his hands.

At one point the child even hit me in the face after I told him to mind his manners. I tried to take a short nap during the flight, but the child jabbed me in the arm and said in a very loud voice, “Talk to me! Someone needs to talk to me! I need attention!”

I hope now you can see why I don’t foresee booking flights on Northwest Airlines ever again. I would never willingly subject myself to such torture. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

– Tamara Dotson

A: Neither would I. There’s no excuse for rudeness, and no one should be forced to be a baby-sitter. I’ve been on dozens of flights with the Jackie’s of the world – they’re in a perpetually foul mood and want to make everyone else’s life miserable. They shouldn’t be working in a service industry.

Northwest’s unaccompanied minors program, which is mandatory for kids ages 5 to 14, provides for supervision from the time of boarding until the child is met at the final destination. Clearly, that isn’t what happened with your little enfant terrible.

To its credit, the carrier did respond to your grievance, apologizing for the difficult flight. “We regret the difficulties you encountered during your travel,” Julie Wagner, a customer relations supervisor, wrote to you in an e-mail. She also promised to send you a $50 transportation credit voucher.

I guess Northwest does pay its passengers to baby-sit.

Here’s where the airline went wrong: It sent your traveling companion – not you – the voucher. It went out of its way to make the wrong person happy.

At this point, however, I think the airline’s funny money would do you no good anyway. You’ve already indicated that you never want to fly on Northwest again, so a voucher would be more or less worthless to you.

Northwest, for its part, ought to get a real unaccompanied minors program. Oh, and it should probably learn to tell its passengers apart, too.

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