Maybe he took his complaint to the wrong place

By | March 9th, 2016

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.

Related story:   The Travel Troubleshooter: Hey, what happened to my ticket refund?

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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