Maybe he took his complaint to the wrong place

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What protections do travelers have against schedule changes? And does it make sense to complain to the Better Business Bureau (BBB) about airline problems?

That’s what Vernon Wong would like to know. A schedule change by American Airlines forced him, his wife, and their son to change their return flight and take a cab to their original destination.

Wong and his wife, who are senior citizens, were scheduled to fly home from Miami to Washington Dulles International Airport. But American changed the flight schedule. That’s a common problem for consumers, and since our advocacy team keeps getting questions about it, we keep answering. But even experienced travelers might be surprised at how few rights they have when an air carrier changes its schedule.

Airlines constantly change their flight schedules for a variety of reasons, including mechanical issues with airplanes, flight personnel matters, inclement weather, and unsold seats. But when American changed Wong’s schedule, he was taken by surprise — and then he complained in the wrong place.

American Airlines dropped one flight on the Wongs’ original itinerary to adjust for low passenger volume, and changed the times of both flights. The departure flight time was moved up by 90 minutes, and the return flight was pushed forward to 6 hours later than the original time. The new flight times left the Wongs with an 8-hour layover at Miami International Airport.

The Wongs found the layover too strenuous and took a standby flight to Ronald Reagan Washington International Airport. But when they arrived at Reagan, AA refused to provide a voucher or reimburse their $99.50 taxi fare back to Dulles.

As far as American is concerned, it complied with its conditions of carriage. The conditions state:

American will endeavor to carry you and your baggage with reasonable dispatch, but times shown in timetables or elsewhere are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract. American may, without notice, substitute alternate carriers or aircraft and, if necessary, may alter or omit stopping places shown on the ticket. Schedules are subject to change without notice.

American is not responsible for or liable for failure to make connections, or to operate any flight according to schedule, or for a change to the schedule of any flight. Under no circumstances shall American be liable for any special, incidental or consequential damages arising from the foregoing (emphasis ours).

Clear enough: American doesn’t think it has any responsibility to keep to the departure and arrival times it lists in its itineraries. Nor will it assume any responsibility for extra costs — such as taxi fares to get home from other airports — incurred by passengers to get where they need to go as a result of any schedule changes.

But the Wongs aren’t satisfied with that. They first appealed to American’s Customer Relations department — unsuccessfully.

Then they took their complaint to the Better Business Bureau, which gives American Airlines an “F” rating.

This begs the question — Is the BBB the right forum for airing a grievance with an airline?

No, it isn’t. In fact, it is questionable whether the BBB is the right forum for any customer service grievance.

Last year, CNN published an exposé on BBB ratings. It accused the BBB of “squeezing big money out of businesses in exchange for its coveted stamp of approval.” The BBB reportedly receives the majority of its revenue from membership fees paid by hundreds of thousands of companies — in exchange for unearned “accreditation” by the BBB:

Through its months-long investigation of the BBB, CNNMoney found that this rating system — a key part of what the organization’s reputation is built on — is seriously flawed, with more than 100 companies that are in hot water with government agencies receiving “A” ratings.

Some of those “A” ratings have gone to Delta, United and Frontier — airlines not noted for good or even fair customer service. Spirit Airlines doesn’t even have a rating from the BBB (although the BBB has an “alert” that there have been a large number of complaints filed against the airline).

So filing an airline complaint with the BBB doesn’t have much — if any — meaning, because airlines ignore them.

And American knows it. It ignored the Wongs’ complaint to the BBB. They will probably never see any reimbursement for the taxi fare.

Is the Better Business Bureau the right place to take an airline complaint?

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Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a longtime editor and moderator of this site.

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  • Laura616

    The BBB isn’t the place to make any complaint. I have no idea why they are even there.

  • Doug_S

    The summary of this problem has me perplexed. Where did the Wongs’ flight originate and when did the schedule change? Why is Miami described as a “layover” if the Wongs were flying to and from Miami? And why would it be more stressful that their flight time changed by 6 hours? Because they would have to drive back home much later (probably after dark)? While I totally get the issue with the BBB (not a good choice), I’m not understanding the description of what happened to the Wongs, other than their return was pushed back by 6 hours. The implication is, I’m assuming, because the schedule change happened in the midst of a long trip. I’m also assuming they chose to fly back to National because that got them home sooner. If they didn’t have to pay a change fee or extra fare to United, why should United be required to pay for their transportation back to Dulles if the flight change was their choice? And did this schedule change happen in the midst of their trip? Is the problem that United changed their flight times and didn’t properly notify them? If so, then I think they definitely have a complaint for the FAA. But this whole thing is so murky I just don’t understand.

  • Jeff W.

    If I read between the lines, was the layover in Miami because of a cruise? So they disembark from the ship and head to the airport and have to wait eight hours for their flight? Which I can understand that not being optimal timing,

    But most airlines are not going to reimburse for ground transportation.

    And no, the BBB is not the place to complain about an airline or almost any very large business.

  • Jeff W.

    The issue was with American, not United.

  • Doug_S

    So true. Sorry about that … I mistyped.

  • Ben

    Some people put too much faith in the BBB, they really have no teeth. In response, some people decry the BBB as worthless, and that’s not the proper response either. Much like a complaint posted on social media, a complaint made via the BBB often gets in front of someone who can understand and solve the problem, and isn’t that the goal?

  • Tom McShane

    Good article, Jennifer. You list unsold seats as a reason for airline schedule change. I, and, I suspect much of the flying public believes that this does happen. Has an airline ever admitted it, though?

  • KanExplore

    In terms of changing the frequency of flights between cities, that happens all the time when there isn’t enough business. However, it’s very unlikely that they will cancel a given flight just because of unsold seats if only because the airplane and crew have to be in position for their next flight. I suppose there could be isolated situations where this could be done, but usually it wouldn’t work out operationally.

  • Regina Litman

    Is the DC Metrorail line to Dulles open yet? Then again, it would likely be difficult for seniors to carry luggage on a Metro trip requiring a transfer, which this would involve.

  • MF

    BBB = consumers can complain, but useless to resolve customer complaints. Yelp = business extortion, they will pull your good reviews, unless you pay them.

  • RightNow9435

    The metro goes from Reagan National, with transfer, to Werhle Rd, which is maybe 10 miles from Dulles. Would likely have cut that cab fare by 2/3, but would have cost maybe $15 in metro fares and required some walking with luggage.

  • Éamon deValera

    The BBB is useless. The only part of the BBB that does anything remotely useful is the National Advertising Division. They mediate disputes between advertisers or claims made by advertisers that draw complaints.

    http://case-report.bbb.org/search/search.aspx?doctype=1&casetype=1

  • The BBB . . . the fox that guards the hen house.

  • Regina Litman

    Thanks for the reply. I had heard that an extension to Dulles was planned and even supposed to have open partway by summer or fall 2014, but I didn’t think it was done all the way yet. Going by cab was probably the best option. Back in the 1980s, when I lived in the area, there was a service between Dulles and National and possibly Baltimore-Washington (BWI) too that took passengers who needed to get from one airport to the other. I think the name was either Washington Flyer or DC Flyer.

  • keholland

    First, my apologies for getting a bit off track. Aside from the airline issue, the “Better Business Bureau” is a joke. They are an irrelevant relic. A few years back I did some contract work, over a several year period, for the “Better Business Bureau” in Miami. They got over ninety days in arrears and since they wouldn’t even return my calls, I dropped their account. I called the “home” office in Arlington, VA in an attempt to get paid and was told that “each office was independent” and there was nothing they could do. Shortly afterwards, the Miami office of the “Better Business Bureau” went out of business. Although I never looked, I’m wondering if the “Better Business Bureau” gave the Miami office of the “Better Business Bureau” an “F” rating. I have noticed, however, that there is another Miami office of the “Better Business Bureau” in business. Can’t seem to find a rating for them though…

    Back to the issue at hand, I do not see how a change of flights on a direct from MIA to IAD is a big issue. ( I also don’t understand the overall explanation of what happened.) However, if they took a flight to DCA instead of IAD, that was their choice. The airline should not have charged them any more for the change, but the airline should not be responsible for paying their cab (or any other ground transportation) fare back to IAD. The alternate airport was their choice.