A failed case from the Twilight Zone of travel

Next stop ... the Twilight Zone. / Photo by Roadside Pictures

If there’s a Twilight Zone of travel cases, then Rochelle Dean has surely discovered it. And although I’ve done my best to help her, it looks like her recent vacation is still stuck someone between “solved” and “unsolved.”

Here are a few details: Back in February, she, a friend, her husband and her two teenage daughters were scheduled to fly from Missoula, Mont., to Los Angeles. She’d booked the entire trip through Hotwire, and the night before, Dean received an email that said she was all checked in for her flights and good to go.

But she wasn’t. On the day of her flight, she received another message from Hotwire that said her flight was canceled and that her new flight had left 29 minutes ago. Oops.

“The next possible flight out left Seattle at 6 a.m. the next day,” she says. “We had no choice. They re-booked us on that flight.”

Dean appealed to a Hotwire supervisor to help her fix the problem.

I explained our situation and let her know that I had a hotel room in LA that I can’t use and won’t get paid for, since I can’t give a 24-hour notice, and that I would have to get us a place to stay now in Seattle.

I told her I think it is only fair that Hotwire pay for both of these hotels.

The Hotwire supervisor assured her she’d take care of it, she says. She promised Dean pre-paid hotel vouchers, which would be waiting at the Alaska Airlines counter, and a $100 Hotwire credit to compensate them for the hotel room they couldn’t use.

Problem solved, right?

Not exactly.

“When we landed, we went directly to the Alaska counter and we were informed they knew nothing about it,” she says. “There were no notes in the system as Hotwire had promised.”

Dean called Hotwire back. It blamed the airline for the oversight. The airline blamed Hotwire. This went on for two hours while their valuable vacation time ticked away.

The Deans stayed at an airport hotel in Seattle at a discounted $59-a-night rate, courtesy of Alaska Airlines. But by the time the arrived in Anaheim for the first leg of their trip, they’d lost more than a day of vacation and run up a lot of expenses they didn’t plan for.

I feel that I so deserve to be reimbursed for my LA prepaid hotel we couldn’t use, the two hotel rooms we had to get in Seattle and the Disney park tickets as the whole thing was just a miserable fiasco from minute one.

I also feel like we deserve to be compensated for our meals, extreme emotional stress and our vacation time lost.

That’s a tall order but I thought I’d run this case by Hotwire, anyway. There were too many unanswered questions about Dean’s experience. Maybe the company could shed some light on this trip to the Twilight Zone.

It did.

Here’s what Hotwire had to say:

As you know, flight cancellations and departure time changes can happen with airlines occasionally, and they are always unfortunate. Those changes are handled directly by the carriers themselves, and we do our best to notify our customers as soon as we can.

In Mrs. Dean’s case, we didn’t receive enough lead time from Alaska Airlines to allow her to make the new flight option provided. Our alerts are processed through our automated system so they can go out in the most timely manner possible.

Unfortunately, the new flight option generated by Alaska wasn’t a reasonable one for the customer, so it made the process even more difficult. After hearing from Mrs. Dean about the error, her party was instead placed on the next available flight.

As a result of the flight change, Mrs. Dean and her party were forced to cancel the first night of their hotel at their destination, and instead had to book one in the layover city.

It’s important to note that neither of these hotels were booked through Hotwire, nor was the changed flight itinerary generated by Hotwire (this was a retail flight purchase). However, after hearing about the issues her party ran into, we issued a $100 HotDollar credit to use our site for the problems she experienced.

After contacting Alaska on behalf of Mrs. Dean, we also learned that Alaska did provide hotel vouchers for her party upon arrival in Seattle. These vouchers are generally good for one free stay at a hotel that the airline has a relationship with.

So essentially, the new hotel was indeed covered for the layover. These vouchers are handled by Alaska directly with the customer, and we did not state that Alaska would have notes in their system regarding the customer’s conversation with Hotwire. However, we did note that Alaska’s policy is to comp customers for these types of situations, which should be reflected in their system, and that’s exactly what happened.

I can completely understand the extreme frustration that Mrs. Dean is feeling. Unfortunately, because this was a retail booking, Hotwire didn’t control the ticket, nor did we receive the funds for that ticket.

However, because Mrs. Dean is a Hotwire customer, we bridged the conversation as best we could between the customer and Alaska. Eventually, Mrs. Dean worked with Alaska directly, and we continued to follow up with our contacts behind the scenes. We learned that Alaska acknowledged the issue and provided credits in the following amounts: $200 x 2 passengers, and $125 x 3 passengers ($775 total).

So in summary, Mrs. Dean’s party received $100 in credits from Hotwire, $775 in credits from Alaska, and hotel vouchers to cover her hotel in the layover city. Hopefully, this was a satisfactory outcome for Mrs. Dean, and her future travels with Alaska will be a much more enjoyable experience.

I checked with Dean to see if it was, indeed, satisfactory. She says part of what Hotwire told me is true. Alaska Airlines offered her friend and her a $200 flight credit and gave her husband and each of the two children a $125 credit.

“Does any of that make up for my lost day of vacation, the two hotel rooms I had to purchase, losing a most of our only day at Disneyland and doing the time we had in the amusement park on three hours of sleep?” she asks. “No, it does not, and I feel all of it was the fault of Hotwire.”

The larger question her case raises is this: If you’re booking a trip through a travel agent, what is it responsible for?

Hotwire has actually done more than many online agents I’ve worked with in the recent past. Some of these dot-com agents simply see themselves as helping facilitate a transaction, nothing more. Getting vouchers was a bonus for Dean. Hotwire could have simply let her fend for herself.

Where does an agent’s responsibility end and a supplier’s begin? Can that line be drawn, or is it different for every trip? And on which side of the line is Hotwire?

The answer awaits … in the Twilight Zone.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Raven_Altosk

    I think we need a poll: Most insane case to appear on Elliott.org.

  • TonyA_says

    The Rule:
    Flight Status Change Notification (14 CFR 259.8) requires the airline to promptly notify passengers and the public of known flight status changes:
    – Diversion,
    – Cancellation, and
    – Delay of 30 minutes or more in the planned operation.

    “Promptly” is defined as within 30 minutes after the carrier becomes aware of the status change. Carrier becomes aware of the delay whenever its System Operation Control Center (SOCC) first learned about the information.

    From the OP’s story and from flight stats (w/o knowing the precise date and flight numbers) it looks like the flight from MSO was delayed (not rescheduled way in advance). To comply with the rule, airlines simply blast out delay information (email, text, etc.) even if you are standing in front of the delayed aircraft and already know about it. Most of the time, passengers or the OTA do not provide the pax’s cellphone number so the only means of contact on record is email or home phone (if any). If even that is not provided to the airline, then the airline simply sends a message to the travel agency on record.

    I cannot spot any infraction (by the airline or hotwire) in this case.

  • TonyA_says

    Maybe the weather is to blame

    While the article did not mention exact dates of the flight, it did say it happened last February. And, if the pax had to layover in SEA, then they were likely scheduled on (or missed) the last flight out.

    Flightaware records 2 dates when there was a substantial delay on QX397 (this is the same flight as AS2397). Of the 2 dates, I suspect they were on for 22FEB. The short, 30 minute, flight was late – departed on 0902PM instead of 725PM. It arrived SEA at 920PM, too late for the next scheduled SEA-LAX flight which was scheduled to depart on 845PM.

    Take a look at the weather at Missoula for 22FEB.
    Strong wind gusts (65 mph) were reported throughout the afternoon and early evening.

    Note that the inbound flight SEA-MSO was also delayed.
    It arrived on 753PM instead of 630PM. You can see from the flight track that it went around and took a different route (maybe to avoid weather problems).

    If the inbound flight arrived at 753PM and it was supposed to turn-around and depart [scheduled] at 725PM, then you know you are in trouble. Give at least an hour to deplane, refuel and board  (plus a 30 minute flight to SEA) and you see how it was impossible for the OP’s family to make it on time to reach their 845PM flight out of Seattle.

    There is a lesson learned here – take an earlier flight and build up scheduling redundancy (reliability). If people were only a little smarter.

  • SpankyMcSpanky

    WTF – life happens.  Everyone wants a guarantee and it’s getting tedious.

  • Sadie_Cee

    Please consider including the man heading for Seoul via Tokyo on Delta.  He was airborne during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami so they were diverted to Hokkaido.  He asked to be reimbursed with a first-class ticket to Seoul for all the trouble he had endured.  The vote was almost 2:1 against mediation.  Contributors gave him short shrift for his lack of compassion, disrespect and greed.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Which honeymoon story was it that the bridezilla extorted a crystal bowl from the gift shop? That one should be on the list, too.

  • ClareClare

    I’m still kinda confused by the OP’s account, but the one thing I THINK I take away is that Alaska Airlines did a super job of handling this issue.  I’ve never had occasion to fly them, but have heard in the past that they’re rated right up at the top for customer service.  Now if the OP had had these same problems with a flight on Spirit? now THAT outcome would undoubtedly have been a tad different…

  • Chasmosaur
  • Nigel Appleby

    Based on your printout it looks to me that not only did they gamble on the last flight out of MSO, they also gambled on a short changeover. Double jeopardy!

  • flutiefan

     ooooh i don’t remember that one. got a link?

  • emanon256
  • flutiefan

     totally agree with everything but the MapQuest calculation. i’ve never made it from LAX to Di$ney in that short of time. at least an hour drive on a good day.

  • emanon256

    Oh wow.  Stupid MapQuest.

  • TonyA_says

    Ok, Ok; let’s call it the Elliott Awards.

    Can anyone put up a blog?

  • Raven_Altosk

    I just wanna say how awesome it is that everyone adopting my spelling of Di$ney.   :D   :D   :D

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    I can do that. I think we’d narrow it down to the best and then vote. I try to keep my polls binary, wherever possible — certainly no more than four choices. But which four?

  • TonyA_says

    From the airline’s perspective, her going to Di$ney is irrelevant. Alaska Air actually did her a favor. Here is what I think happened.

    While waiting for a delayed departure at Missoula (MSO) airport, they were presented with a new itinerary. Continue flying to SEA (late and delayed), be put up at an airport motel, and depart the earliest flight the next morning at 6AM and arrive LAX at 840AM.

    IMO, she had no better option. If she opted to leave MSO the next day instead, they will arrive LAX 3 hours later (1137AM).

    With the reported 65MPH gusts at MSO (assuming her flight was on 22FEB), she is lucky Alaska flew her safely and they still had a vacation. Some people are just never happy.

  • Lindabator

    She IS complaining to Hotwire (the agent) when Alaska Air already compensated her for the misconnection, AND comped her a night’s stay.  (They do NOT give vouchers for a discounted room, Chris!)  I think the clinet not only protests too much, but fudges facts to whine even louder! 

  • Lindabator

    I agree completely.  they took a chance on a short connection, on the last flight out, and would have still had a “short” 1st night at ANY hotel.  Not only was Alaska generous, so was Hotwire in offering her their $100 voucher.  Things HAPPEN when you travel, you just have to learn to deal with them.  AND not expect the world for a short inconvenience.n

  • Lindabator

    Boot camp!  LOVE IT!  :)

  • Lindabator

    WOW!  So you are the kind of client I PRAY books on the web!  Talk about UNREAL expectations!  So in case of a tornado, they should SOMEHOW risk all to get you there “on time???”  Things happen every day.  Frankly, they got the party out on the next available flight, put them up at a hotel, and are NOT responsible for what few hours shefeels she missed at Disney.  RIDICULOUS!lls

  • Lindabator

    All that aside, she booked flights that were DELAYED, then had to be reaccommodated (she was), rescheduled on the next available flight (she was), and still got in at a reasonable hour.  IF it was so bloody important to be there early, she should never have chosen a short connection/last flight of the night option,

  • Raven_Altosk

    Go the “American Idol” route and post 16 to start, then narrow it down to 8 the next week? LOL.

  • TonyA_says

     But why did they deserve getting $775 in credits?

    Even if these were just vouchers, what were they for? Alaska Air already paid for their hotel rooms in Seattle. The reason for the delay seemed to have been the weather (strong wind gusts), so Alaska Air is not responsible for the delay. The [lower] $125 vouchers are more than half the cost of one roundtrip ticket MSO-LAX.

    TICKET     BASE USD                TX/FEE USD       TKT TTL USD
     ADT01       184.18                     57.02            241.20
    *TTL         184.18                     57.02            241.20
    FBC ADT T14N4

  • Daves

    If you want compensation for stress… well, learn to meditate instead.

    That’s why I’m thankful for the prayer of serenity when I first learned it. Helped me ever since.

  • sdir

    I respectfully disagree with your restaurant analogy. Firstly because there’s a huge difference between the cost of airfare and the price of dinner.  Secondly because the diner in your example didn’t also demand compensation for travel expenses, tickets to whatever show/movie/meeting they were missing, etc.

    In regards to your funeral example?  I went through it myself.  In January I put up with delays while rushing/traveling for my father’s funeral.  I had confirmed my flight that morning and had closely been watching flight times online, yet I didn’t learn of a delay until arriving for my flight.  Yes it was frustrating, but stuff happens.  I didn’t demand compensation nor did I complain to Chris how unfair life is.  I still feel the LW went too far with her demands.

  • TonyA_says

    Me too. My Dad is a prostate cancer survivor. Lucky for us, my brother in law is a urologist-surgeon, so he took care of Dad (and all his brother in laws, too) for free. Apparently all the sons (3 of us) are very prone to the same cancer. There is no way I am going through those damn x-ray machines. It scares me.

  • Ann Lamoy

    SEA is my home airport. Anyone that flys into or out of (or even through SEA) during the months of November through March should also be aware that the airport is subject to weather delays. We get a lot of rain/wind during these months. (Although April has been pretty freaking rainy for pete’s sake.) It doesn’t cause massive delays all the time but there does exist the potential. Tight connections are not a good thing. And a late night connection at that? Really not a good idea.

  • TonyA_says

     Well, they wished upon a star  – they were going to Dis$ney.