Unsolved travel mysteries

by Christopher Elliott on September 15, 2003

Not every case that crosses my desk is solvable. Sometimes, a travel company refuses to help a traveler with a legitimate gripe. Here are two such complaints.

US Airways lost my luggage

Q: I took a vacation to Bermuda with my three daughters in 1999. On our return flight, we each checked one piece of luggage and brought one carry-on.

Just before takeoff, someone in first class boarded the flight. Since the overhead compartments were already full in the front of the cabin, a flight attendant opened the compartment above my daughter and took her bag out to be checked in. My daughter tried to tell her that my wallet and house keys were in the bag but she told my daughter to be quiet and to behave before she called the captain on her.

The carry-on did not make it. It went missing for three days, and when it was returned, my souvenirs were gone, my wallet was empty and most of my jewelry had been stolen. I filed a claim at the airport but in the meantime, I had to find a way home and had to hire a locksmith to get back into my house.

US Airways offered me goodwill vouchers after the incident, but I just want the airline to process my luggage claim. Can you help me?

– Rosemary Daly

A: That’s an unbelievable story.

You claim a crewmember removed a regulation carry-on against your daughter’s will. Then you say the carrier stonewalled you for years on your request to process a luggage claim. It refused to even consider looking at your claim.

In the five years I’ve been writing this column, I’ve never heard anything quite like that.

But is that what really happened?

US Airways would neither confirm nor deny the details of your story, but it agreed to reopen your case. At one point during its own investigation, it claimed to have resolved your dispute, but that turned out to be wrong. The airline had just sent you another form letter.

When I e-mailed a company spokesman to check the status of the investigation, I received the following response: “I told you before that we DO NOT discuss customer issues with the press and we are not about to start. THIS MATTER IS NOW CLOSED.”

(In fact, US Airways has discussed numerous customer issues with me in the past. If it has such a policy, it is not always enforced.)

Here’s what US Airways agreed to do: It offered you five $150 vouchers as a “gesture of goodwill,” which you accepted and eventually redeemed. It apologized to you and your daughter in writing. And it reportedly reprimanded the flight attendant involved in the forced check-in incident.

Given that US Airways won’t talk to me about this case, and that it has apologized to you and offered you vouchers, I have no choice but to believe your story is true.

There’s one more thing US Airways needs to do, and that’s process your initial luggage claim. If it denies you any compensation, that’s fine – but at least it should look into your claim.

However, in a written response to your request, Nancy Lash, a consumer affairs representative, turned you down. Why? She cited a two-year statute of limitation on baggage claims and also noted that valuables aren’t covered under its terms of transportation.

“We are not in a position to offer further compensation,” she added.

That’s too bad. You’ve been trying to get US Airways to process your claim for the last four years. If the airline had acted sooner, the two-year statute wouldn’t be an issue. Besides, your daughter didn’t voluntarily check in your bag. The luggage was forcibly removed, which means its terms don’t apply. (And by the way, I wouldn’t call goodwill vouchers “compensation.” It’s airline funny money.)

I’m baffled by the way US Airways responded to this case. If any other carrier had mistreated a customer like you, I believe it would have gone out of its way to make amends rather than string you along for years and then react with such hostility when a journalist tried to act as a mediator.

I’m really stunned, and I think it says something about the kind of airline US Airways has become.

Fortunately, the Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division agreed with me, at least to a point. After I helped you bring your grievance to the government’s attention, it promptly recorded your case as a complaint against US Airways. The airline’s incompetence will go on its permanent record – and deservedly so.

Next time you fly, keep your valuables on your person or ship them (and buy plenty of insurance). But when it comes to your luggage, trust no one.

Epilogue: After this column appeared, US Airways sent Daly another $1,000 worth of vouchers to settle her claim.

Justfares.com just misled me

Q: Last July, I booked a roundtrip flight from San Francisco to Phnom Penh on Justfares.com. I wanted to get credit for the miles, so I willingly paid more money – about $1,300 – to fly on Singapore Airlines, instead of paying a third less for a consolidator fare.

A few days before my departure, I checked the flight with Singapore and was told my fare did not qualify for miles. I called Justfares.com, and the agent said he had the contract with the carrier that said my ticket should qualify. If there were any problems, he’d take care of it.

Well, I flew and got no miles. The agent took a long time trying to get this resolved with Singapore Airlines, which claimed it had notified Justfares.com by email that it cancelled the contract. I even involved American Express in this whole mess.

The best I could get was a $200 credit (as the next cheapest Singapore ticket would have been $1,100). The agent says he’s still trying on his own to resolve it with Singapore, so if I do get miles, I’ll have to return the credit.

I really, really, really wanted those miles. So what should I have done? Is it far too late now?

– Vera Chan

A: Ahh, the things we do for frequent flier miles. Personally, I think miles are a waste of time, but that’s neither here nor there.

I contacted Singapore Airlines to see if we could sort this out. After initially denying you any miles, I got through to Benjamin Wong, the airline’s assistant manager of loyalty marketing. He said that since Justfares.com was notified of the ineligible fare types but informed you otherwise – in other words, misrepresented the facts – it would try to accommodate your request to have the miles credited to your account.

“As a concession, if Justfares.com is willing to pay for the cost of the miles, since it misinformed Ms. Chan, we would be agreeable to credit the miles to her United Airlines Mileage Plus account,” he told me. The cost of the miles, according to Wong, would be $300.

So that brought us back to Justfares.com. And here’s where things went way off-course.

I contacted your agent, Safi, on April 22, with Singapore’s generous offer. Safi didn’t respond. I contacted Safi again on July 6 by phone and followed up with another email. Safi insisted that the case had already been resolved.

Yeah, right.

And that’s where this case dead-ends. Justfares.com insists that it did the best it could by refunding you $200 (even though you could have saved about $430 by booking a consolidator ticket). That appears to be its final position. You don’t have your miles.

I think Justfares.com should have paid Singapore $300 for the miles it said you’d get and apologize to you.

Next time you book through a travel agent, check with the airline regarding your mileage before you book. Or better yet, forget the miles and buy a more affordable ticket.

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