How passengers exact revenge on fee-happy airlines

How passengers exact revenge on fee-happy airlines

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Aaron Fox is not the vindictive type. He’s a surfer, which, if you look it up in the dictionary, is synonymous with “laid back.”

But he felt anything but easygoing when he flew from Myrtle Beach, SC, to San Francisco on US Airways recently. The flight to South Carolina was uneventful; as the airline had done many times before, it allowed him to check his surfboard at no extra charge. But on the way back, a gate agent asked him for $200 to transport his board.

A “lengthy” discussion followed, with Fox insisting he wouldn’t have brought the surfboard from San Francisco if he’d known it would cost him a grand total of $400.

“Ultimately, they persuaded me to pay $200, with the shift manager guaranteeing we would get a $175 refund from US Airways customer service if we just submitted the information when we got home,” he says.

You can probably guess what happened next. Fox returned to San Francisco, asked for a refund – and was turned down flat in a form email.

“The fee for a surf board is $200 each way,” it said. “I am unable to honor the request you have made for a refund for that fee you received at Myrtle Beach because the fee is valid. For more information on our baggage allowance and special items, please refer to our website.”

I asked US Airways if that was their final answer.

“He was appropriately charged, per policy,” a spokesman told me. “I’m sorry for the confusion and his disappointment with the outcome.”

So Fox did what an increasing number of travelers are doing when they’re confronted by an intransigent airline: He exacted revenge by disputing the charge on his credit card.

“I feel like that’s a trump card consumers often forget they have,” he says.

He’s right.

Disputing a credit card charge can be a major inconvenience to a business, even a big one like US Airways. Each dispute requires a personal response from an airline, including documentation of the purchase. And the burden is on the business to prove the transaction is legitimate. Even if the customer doesn’t win, it can burn up enough of the company’s time to make it pay for its mistakes.

A related strategy – and admittedly, an extreme measure – is to simply cancel the credit card. I’ve run across that a time or two recently. This rarely works with a charge that’s in dispute (the bank will still find a way to charge you) but if there’s a recurring charge you’ve agreed to, with, say a fare “club” this can be a highly effective way to deny an airline its money.

Finally, an irritated customer can bring his or her case to the media, in the hopes they’ll write something about it. The court of public opinion can be an unforgiving place. (I know.) Obviously, that’s what Fox did – and obviously, it worked. Even if a customer is wrong — and customers are often wrong — the damage can be significant, in terms of negative PR points.

By the way, as a media guy, I try to stay out of the public shaming business. But it’s not always easy.

Interestingly, I’ve seen more customers take matters into their own hands than ever before. Maybe it’s a feeling of powerlessness that passengers like Fox have experienced, when dealing with an airline.

Maybe it’s just me, but something tells me that frustration is growing.

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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  • Adam1222

    Encouraging consumers to engage in fraud is mildly discomfiting to say the least.

  • TonyA_says

    I think here is the reason behind that $175:

    Some would argue that a surfboard is nothing but an ordinary checked luggage (with a $25/$35 first/second bag fee, respectively).
    But USAir charges a flat fee of $200 for a surfboard.

    The OP can argue (incorrectly) that the $175 would be the difference between the two.
    Coincidentally, $175 is also the fee for an OVERSIZE luggage (62-80 inches in dimension).

    A surfboard is usually at least 6 feet long. It cannot be handled by the regular convertor belts and sorting equipment so it is moved manually (by hand) to and from (and between) the airplane. Obviously there is a special fee for doing this service.

  • MarkKelling

    Also, the credit card companies will cancel your card if you dispute too many things. The first one or two disputes are usually settled in your favor (whether on not they actually take the money back from the merchant is irrelevant) unless they are truly outrageous claims, but then you get put into the “customers who cost us too much” group on your third dispute and if you stay there too long by disputing more charges the credit card bank will close out your account.

    I have only disputed one charge where I ordered something, the delivery service claimed it was delivered but it never showed up at my door. After working with the company for a month and making no progress toward a suitable resolution (i.e. send me another one) I disputed. Got my money refunded ($200). But this is also a card that at the time I was putting $20K on every year. So the bank made more from the interchange fees than they refunded to me.

  • mbods

    I can see why he is upset. As you stated in the very beginning, USAir did NOT charge him on the trip to SC. So I can understand him thinking it’s wrong to charge him going back to CA. Inconsistancy from airline, what’s a person to think??

  • $16635417

    A lot like what Allstate did to me on auto insurance. I had a claim for a cracked windshield and then hit a deer within 6 months. They advised me I was high risk and dropped me. Almost 30 years later I’ve never had another claim with my subsequent insurers. Allstate’s loss.

  • Rebecca Rosenberg

    I’m with the customer on this one. No airline requires customers to read their website prior to traveling. I’d gather that many people only check the website if they are using a different airline than they usually use or have heard something on the news or gotten a letter from the airline that something has changed. I usually fly Southwest, and do not read their website prior to every flight.

    So every time this guy flies with his surfboard, he checks if for free. So he assumes, as is normal, that this time is no different. And in fact, when he gets on his flight, it’s the same. Then for the return flight, all of a sudden there’s this outrageous fee? Um, no. Why is this not okay? Well, now he’s stuck. Had he been told before beginning his journey, he could have chosen a different airline. Instead, they tell him at the gate of his returning flight. Not so easy to switch airlines at this point.

  • fran

    I have flown US airways, the crappiest airline in America, half dozen times, and never
    ever by choice..each time they outdid themselves in the scale of their
    jawdropping incompetence, plain rudeness and shockingly nasty impunity.
    It’s the kind of corp. that you may well pop a bottle of champagne for
    if it disappeared from the face of the earth.

    They will almost
    never own their issues, always blame the customer and will almost never
    as much give a 10% coupon in compensation. They seem to enjoy messing
    with people…you really have to see it to believe it.

    Rated the worst
    US airline, they are deeply bankrupt (see Wiki article) and have always
    been addicted to amassing profit for less and less service at the expense of travelers, their comfort and safety. They
    epitomize a corrupt corp. without an ounce of care for the consumer, nasty enough to be the villain in a Bond movie.

    Their planes are mostly old and dirty and surely a matter of time before
    they drop like turd from the sky. Their crew is generally sad
    and decrepit. And if you complain in any tone, they will turn on you
    like methheads. I have seen them do this time and time again to mothers,
    the elderly, young people and me.

    If you fly them, it’s only
    bec. you have no choice. I would suggest that anything up to 30% more
    for a ticket from another airline is worth the hell these sobs will dish
    out to you.

    Think I am exaggerating? Go on, fly them and make their day

  • Philip Brown

    I was informed by Travelocity (T) that I could take three (3) checked bags on Spirit Air’s (S) flight to Lima, Peru; upon calling S about a fourth checked item (printer) – I was shocked to be informed of their ONE (1) CHECKED BAG policy on this flight!
    I had called with 24 hours of booking thru T; but I was informed there was only four (4) hours to cancel; WRONG! I contacted my card & filed a dispute; T or S never responded to same & of course no refund! I should have been correctly informed that I had 24 hours to cancel & a refund processed – April 2012.
    It is my feeling that T should have informed me of this very unusual policy & S had an obligation to monitor what info was given on T & other agent sites (this mis-info is still not corrected). DON’T THE COMPUTERS – TALK TO EACH OTHER??? Maybe the DOT will include such practices in their new Flight Rights legislation – hope so.
    I am interested in using the social media to bring these unethical (& maybe illegal policies) to the attention of others; maybe people would think twice before using the services of T or S – both well represented in consumer complaints. Please offer me some suggestions & ideas to do so.
    I have also detailed this in the forum “Code-sharing” of Oct. 2012; thanks to Chris Elliott, I feel my voice “will be heard”…
    Muchas gracias,
    Philip C. Brown

  • EdB

    You not want to include your email address in your posts, unless you like spam. There are bots that scan forums like this to harvest email address.