Who’s responsible for my missed connection?

by Christopher Elliott on June 30, 2012

Jeff Emerson missed his flight from Minneapolis to Washington last month. He didn’t make his connection to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and didn’t arrive as scheduled in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, where he was supposed to start work as a summer volunteer.

The story of Emerson’s delay is fascinating — maybe a little infuriating, too — for anyone who’s flying this summer, particularly internationally. It raises an important question about who takes responsibility for delays that are beyond a passenger’s control.

Emerson is a student at Luther College, a private school in Iowa. Through Orbitz, he’d booked a one-way ticket from Minneapolis to Tanzania via United Airlines and Ethiopian Airlines. The ticket was issued by Ethiopian, which means that it got the money from Orbitz and set the fare rules.

You can probably guess what happened next. A college student flying to Africa on a one-way ticket is bound to set off all kinds of alarms with the TSA. Sure enough, an agent pulled Emerson aside and questioned him, causing him to miss his flight. “Even though my passport is legitimate and my answers proved to be the truth, the agent could not remove me from a 24-hour no-fly list with the TSA,” Emerson says.

If you’re wondering about the 24-hour “no-fly” list, hold that thought.

Emerson tried to rebook his ticket for the next day, but United, the carrier on the Minneapolis-Washington leg of the trip, couldn’t help him, because it didn’t own the ticket. He needed to contact Ethio­pian. And that airline wouldn’t simply let him board the next flight for Addis Ababa. It wanted him to pay another $1,640 for a new ticket. He’d paid $1,082 for his original ticket.

That’s when Emerson contacted me. He’d already appealed to Orbitz for help, and it agreed to waive its $30 rebooking fee. He’d also spent days bouncing among Orbitz, United and Ethiopian, and he was becoming increasingly agitated. Why, he wondered, wouldn’t Ethiopian simply rebook him on the next flight?

I contacted Ethiopian, and it said it couldn’t do that. Actually, it needed him to buy a new ticket because of Ethiopia’s visa requirements, which state that inbound passengers must have a round-trip ticket. But it was willing to waive its $400 change fee, a representative said. Ethiopian’s position makes perfect sense from an airline’s perspective. After all, rebooking him at no cost would mean forfeiting the revenue it might get from a paying passenger on the same flight.

I asked Orbitz whether it could do anything. It circled back with Ethiopian and managed to negotiate a full refund on Emerson’s ticket. He rebooked his flight, paying about $200 more than his original fare.

Almost a full week after Emerson began his journey to Africa, he arrived in Tanzania. But he found the overall experience upsetting. Shouldn’t airlines be required to help a passenger who’s left behind because of a security delay? “I understand some of their reasoning — that the delays were not directly caused by their airline — and I know airlines don’t have to do something in every single case,” he says. “But I just don’t get it.”

A Department of Transportation spokesman says that technically, Ethiopian and United acted correctly. “Since the missed flight was not the carrier’s fault, DOT rules would not require the carrier to reschedule the passenger at no additional charge,” says Bill Mosley, a department spokesman.

The TSA doesn’t require airlines to help passengers who are held up. “Re-accommodation is between the airline and the passenger,” a spokesman told me. The TSA doesn’t compensate passengers who are delayed for security reasons, either. But for years, airlines have helped travelers by letting them take the next available flight. It appears that those informal agreements extend only to domestic airlines.

“I was an innocent victim of the TSA’s security measures,” Emerson says. “I also feel that I am entitled to some compensation for my loss of time, and the condescension I’ve had to deal with, largely on the part of Ethiopian Airlines.”

What about that 24-hour “no fly” list? A spokesman for the Terrorist Screening Center, a branch of the FBI that maintains the watch list of passengers who aren’t allowed to fly, told me that there is “no such thing” as a 24-hour “no fly” list. “If you’re on the list, you can’t fly — period,” he said.

But Emerson’s long journey to Africa raises a broader issue: For years, airlines have invoked “reasons beyond our control” as an excuse to deny passengers essentials such as a hotel room when a flight is held up because of weather, or a meal when air traffic control keeps a plane on the ground over lunch. Passengers are disappointed but generally understanding.

When the tables are turned, however, and passengers miss a flight for reasons beyond their control, airlines are reluctant or unwilling to be accommodating. It’s difficult to regulate an entire industry into seeing things from the customer’s perspective. But should that stop us from trying?

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  • Anonymous

    I don’t see why a college student with a valid passport flying to Ethiopia should set off any alarms at all with TSA, unless he was previously suspect for some reason. The TSA’s job is to see to it that nobody gets on a plane who represents a threat to it. Screen the guy properly like anyone else, and if he’s clean it’s none of your business. I don’t think the main complaint is with Ethiopian Airlines but with the TSA, unless there is something more to this that we don’t know about.  Let’s stop giving the TSA the right to act like dictators, taking away our freedoms in the name of some never revealed computer generated hunch based on nothing.

  • Mike

    Seems like a good case for utilizing a travel agent. Just saying. :)   One phone call and we would have our premier rep for Ethiopian Air on the horn and we’d settle it.  regardless- I think the key is to be as proactive as possible…while at the same time — not having an entitlement mentality in dealing with the airlines.   I’ve found that they really do WANT to help most of the time…but if we act like they have no choice but to help in these cases… it actually de-motivates them. makes sense. :)

  • James

    So he was put on a “24 hour no fly list” that doesn’t exist. It sounds like this fiasco started because of a frustrated TSA agent exceeding his authority when he was unable to find a problem and make a “bust”.
    Then, everybody else says, “Not my problem.” and points at someone else.
    His compensation would be seeing the agent disciplined but that isn’t going to happen. 

  • Michael

    It sounds to me like he didn’t get to the airport early enough.

  • LEN

    He was held up for 24 hrs. by TSA you think he should have been there 36 hrs ahead of time?

  • Greypaws

    I don’t understand why he bought a one-way ticket in the first place, especially if Ethiopia requires round-trip tickets for inbound foreigners. He must have secured a visa somewhere along the line, and he should have already checked the visa requirements. 

    This report makes it sound like the one way ticket was the trigger for the rest of the chaos. The missing piece of information is why he didn’t have a round trip ticket.

  • Mapsmith

    Agreed.  Anyone who makes a flight reservation should know the requirements for the destination.  This story sounds like Ethiopian Airlines realized that the student did not have the correct paperwork for his flights.  Rather than having to transport him back to the US after arrival without the necessary visa and round trip ticket, Ethiopian Airlines notified United.   United notified TSA that the student did not have the proper paperwork and gave him 24 hours to provide it.

    It seems like Mr. Elliot has been given not enough information about the “24 Hour Hold”  and that the Student is the one in the wrong in this case.

  • Lyngengr

    Orbitz is the one to blame here.  They should not have sold a one-way ticket to Ehtiopia if the country does not allow it.  As Mike says below, if you’re going to fly international, it is a good idea to use a travel agent.

  • Anonymous

    As long as you have another one way ticket out you are fine, which is what in fact he had.  His brother posted over on elliott.org that the volunteer company wouldn’t handle the roudtrip ticket for him as he wanted to do some additional traveling after his worktime with them was over.  So the company bought him the one way ticket and he handled the additional ticket(s) separately. 

  • James Penrose

    I’d never book something like this through an online system. I’d use a travel agent.  (I am not one nor do I work in the travel industry).

    And I’d have tried to book the ticket on a U.S. carrier rather than some foreign flag were you can’t really reach people in charge or who might care (Not that U.S. airlines are all that much better)

    For some of the rest:  TSA etc used to deny there even was a .”No fly” list so Id’ not take anything they said as honesty.  There quite likely is some process to put a hold on someone until some anonynous bureaucrat gives the nod.

    There was at least one attempt to put this into law so that unless you got a positive OK to fly, you weren’t flying so I’d not be surprised if they just went ahead and did this without bothering Congress or the peple with pesky little details.

    The rules need to be changed so that if you are held up by “security” and miss your flight it is their responsibility to handle any additional costs.

    Power without responsibility has a 100% rate of turning into abuse.

  • James Penrose

    I’d never book something like this through an online system. I’d use a travel agent.  (I am not one nor do I work in the travel industry).

    And I’d have tried to book the ticket on a U.S. carrier rather than some foreign flag were you can’t really reach people in charge or who might care (Not that U.S. airlines are all that much better)

    For some of the rest:  TSA etc used to deny there even was a .”No fly” list so Id’ not take anything they said as honesty.  There quite likely is some process to put a hold on someone until some anonynous bureaucrat gives the nod.

    There was at least one attempt to put this into law so that unless you got a positive OK to fly, you weren’t flying so I’d not be surprised if they just went ahead and did this without bothering Congress or the peple with pesky little details.

    The rules need to be changed so that if you are held up by “security” and miss your flight it is their responsibility to handle any additional costs.

    Power without responsibility has a 100% rate of turning into abuse.

  • Pingback: Who’s accountable for my missed connection? | TravelgistTravelgist

  • Paula4cards

    If there’s only one transatlantic flight to your destination per day. And someone is coming from a long ways to pick you up. You go to Dulles the day before to allow for any delays! Looking at the other info – his one way ticket set off a flag for TSA from Ethopian. Which providing proof of the separate return ticket should cover but would mean missing the original flight with out enough connection time.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the information. Too many here are wanting to blame the kid or the airline when it’s clearly TSA that’s the problem here.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve booked several dozen international trips online myself. That’s not the problem. The problem is the TSA, as you discuss later in the post. 

  • MindyJ

    There are certain things that cause red flags, and one way tickets are probably  very high on that list.  Whether or not Emerson knew that,  Orbitz should have let him know that this would cause a red flag,  and made recommendations to help him navigate through the security problems he would encounter. Also, Ethiopia requires a round trip for a visa,  Orbitz should not have been able to sell him a one way ticket!

     
    Put together,  these are 2 reasons not to use an online travel agent such as Orbitz, unless you are going on a plain vanilla trip, meaning 1) domestic 2) round trip 3) no special services (early boarding, special meals, bringing strollers or carseats for infants).

  • vacationagent

    The triggering event was the one way ticket – which the airline should have caught upon check-in. The airline faces the fine if they board a passenger without proper documentation. The issue would never have gotten as far as the TSA if the airline had done it’s job on the front end. A real agent (not an online agent) would have beem helpful.

  • Jimtbay

    It needs to be realized that this generation of traveler is not going to use a travel agent.  It is online for banking, travel, small to large purchases and even dating. 

  • Mike

    Yet — when this generation realizes that the bulk of consolidator fares, and specialized contract fares are not online — they may reconsider…and perhaps contact their agent via the internet. :)  Specialists of any field — will still be specialists – regardless of someone offering basic information on the web.  

  • DCTA

     Every year I book countless tix for “this generation” for their foreign internships and volunteer work into Africa, Asia, and South America.  Here’s the difference – the subgroup of them who are savvy enough to get advice from a Travel Agent, to buy INSURANCE, etc. will always recognize the value of doing this.  My travel practice is actually getting  younger and younger with the bulk of my (repeat) clientele being in their 30s.

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