This summer, airlines takes “ridiculous” to the next level

By | June 13th, 2012

We'll guarantee on-time arrival ... for a price. / Photo JB Self - Flickr
Just when you think you’ve heard it all, you hear from someone like Stewart Sheinfeld, a reader from Chicago who is flying to Morelia, Mexico, on the discount airline Volaris.

Sheinfeld says when he booked online, he was offered an “On Time Performance Guarantee.” Now normally, a performance guarantee comes with the product. But not this one.

For just an extra $7, Volaris said it would guarantee his flight would arrive within 30 minutes of his scheduled arrival time. And if it was late?

“We’ll give you $100 USD of Volaris electronic credit to keep flying with us,” it says.

Pay for a guarantee. That’s a new one to me.

“It’s like Vegas,” says Sheinfeld. “Place your bets.”

I had never heard of Volaris’ $7 guarantee. Then again, I’ve stopped asking the question, “What’ll they think of next?” My friends at Spirit Airlines cured me of it. I don’t want to know. You probably don’t, either.

Air travel in the summer of 2012 is fraught with ridiculousness that goes far beyond fees, though. It extends to policies, processes — and to you.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about United Airlines’ new reservation system, which had a few bumps when it merged with Continental. More than a few, actually.

It was only a matter of time before someone forced me to invoke Kafka in reference to the new system, but Linda Schofield made me do it.

Her United flight from Denver to Aspen, Colo., turned back because of inclement weather and landed in Denver. That’s not uncommon. But the United misplaced her luggage (also not uncommon) and left her in Denver with no way to get to Aspen (that is uncommon). She had to rent a car to get to the resort town.

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But that isn’t why she contacted me. She says a United agent promised her a refund on the unused flight to Aspen, and when she tried to get it, she got lost in a maze of call centers and confusing web pages.


“I have tried calling the refunds office and the customer service office and got nowhere,” she says. “They keep referring me back to the website to submit another request, which I feel is complex and useless.”

The problem is that the site won’t accept her refund request without a confirmation number, which she no longer has. And the call center employees refer her back to the website, even when she tries to explain her problem.

“This system is clearly designed to thwart any reasonable attempt at communication and to prevent them ever having to process any refunds,” she says. “I’m so angry at United, I could spit.”

I’ve sent her a few high-level contacts at United, and I’ll help her get a refund. But in the meantime, I wonder how many other passengers who need refunds have gotten stuck in this Kafkaesque process.

Too many, I would bet.

Of course, the “ridiculous” cuts both ways. Consider what happened to Helton Harrison on a recent JetBlue Airways flight. It wasn’t the in-flight experience, which he says was “wonderful” but the other passengers, that made him cringe.

“They didn’t put their carry-on in the bin above them,” he remembers. That forced him to stow his luggage in the bin several rows back.

“This caused chaos and confusion when the plane landed and some in row 4 had to be searching for their luggage in row 11. This simply was ridiculous because some passengers do not learn to follow rules and apply common sense,” he says.

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If this conflict, which is a variation of the “bin hog” problem, is bad on JetBlue — an airline that includes the cost of your checked luggage in its ticket — you can only imagine what’s happening on the rest of the airlines, which charge for the first checked bag.

Can you say “chaos”?

But as the busy summer travel season unfolds, here’s a question for you: Which of these is the most ridiculous? Is it the creative new fees travel airlines invent? The maddening systems that prevent us from getting what we’re entitled to? Or is it … us?

The pool’s open.



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