What to do when your airline offends you

1-Screen Shot 2013-12-014Nothing could have prepared Jeff White for the shock he got after printing his boarding pass for a recent Delta Air Lines flight from Pensacola, Fla., to Albany, N.Y., by way of Atlanta. Right there, next to his name, was a confirmation code that proclaimed: “H8GAYS.”

“At first I didn’t think I read it right,” says White, a student at the University of West Florida. “I was worried that another customer might think I somehow picked that code. If I were a gay male, I might have thought that a Delta worker purposely gave me that code, and that would have made me extremely uncomfortable.”

Every day, in ways big and small, airlines offend their customers. Most of these transgressions are fairly minor, from serving the wrong meal to addressing a guest by the incorrect name. But taken together, the incidents raise a larger question: How should companies respond, and what kind of compensation, if any, are travelers entitled to?
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After brother’s death, where’s my airfare refund?

Jorg Hackemann / Shutterstock.com
Jorg Hackemann / Shutterstock.com
After Irene Reitman’s brother passes away, she cancels her trip to Las Vegas. But American Airlines won’t refund her fare. Why not?

Question: My husband and I were recently scheduled to fly from Chicago to Las Vegas on American Airlines. Unfortunately, my brother died shortly before we left, and we canceled our non-refundable tickets.

I subsequently noticed on the American website that non-refundable tickets could be refunded due to a death in the immediate family. I called the refund services desk for many days and could never get through to a real person. The message on this phone was “Due to circumstances beyond our control, we can’t answer the phone right now, call back later.”
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Look out! More nonsense fees are coming in 2014

Aaron Amat/Shutterstock
Aaron Amat/Shutterstock
One dollar.

That’s the surprise fee Karin Melick-Barthelmess saw on her bill for an American Airlines flight from St. Louis to New York. It was listed as an “American Airlines Internet surcharge,” she says.

One dollar may not sound like a lot, but when American businesses in general — and travel companies in particular — build their entire ventures on fees like that, it is a big deal. (American raked in $266 million in ticket change fees and $255 million in baggage fees during the first half of 2013. It’s on track to collect more than $1 billion in fees for the year, with most of them coming in a few dollars at a time.)

Here’s my prediction for 2014: more nonsense fees.
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Let’s unmerge a few airlines

Ranglen/Shutterstock
Ranglen/Shutterstock
The Justice Department’s settlement agreement with American Airlines and US Airways, which will finally allow the carriers to merge, is taking the airline industry in the wrong direction, say many travelers.

The government, you’ll recall, sued to stop the latest mega-airline from being created this summer, citing competitive concerns. It only green-lit the deal after the airlines promised to surrender gates and landing permissions at several busy airports.

But it’s not what some passengers wanted. Instead, they hoped regulators would go the other way, blocking a wrongheaded merger and maybe undoing a few previous mergers, too.

That’s right, they want to unmerge a few airlines.
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Blocking this airline mega-merger is good for travelers

Christopher Parypa / Shutterstock.com
Christopher Parypa / Shutterstock.com
The Justice Department’s surprise lawsuit to block the proposed $11 billion consolidation of American Airlines and US Airways appears to doom the latest airline mega-merger, at least in its current form. But for airline passengers, the prospect of two stand-alone airlines is mostly good news.

Stopping the transaction will keep airfares affordable and fees in check by maintaining the present level of competition, according to the federal government. It will also give consumers more choices in air travel. “By challenging this merger, the Department of Justice is saying that the American people deserve better,” said Attorney General Eric Holder in a prepared statement. Six states — including Arizona and Texas, where US Airways and American, respectively, are based — and the District of Columbia joined the DOJ in the antitrust lawsuit.
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Auto insurers don’t play fair with customers

The Scan is a synopsis of news you can’t miss. Get it delivered to your “in” box by signing up now. It’s free.

What we’re reading

Auto insurers don’t play fair with customers, study finds (NBC News)

Landing gear on Southwest jet collapses at LaGuardia Airport, eight injured (Reuters)

More leisure fliers pay for seats, food, legroom and Wi-Fi (Wall Street Journal)

TSA chief warns of ‘new underwear bomb’ which threatened airline last year and forced agency to rethink all its security procedures (Daily Mail)

Horton shares credit with Arpey for successful American bankruptcy (The Street)

What we’re writing

A scratch on my rental car — and now, a bill from a collection agency (Elliott)

Tagged as a troublemaker by the TSA (TSA News)

Do airlines need to add more humans at the airport? (Consumer Traveler)

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Why merging American Airlines with US Airways is a terrible idea

Christopher Parypa / Shutterstock.com
Christopher Parypa / Shutterstock.com
Any day now, the U.S. Department of Justice will approve the merger between American Airlines and US Airways.

Clearing the world’s largest airline for takeoff will benefit passengers and build a new, highly competitive supercarrier, according to most of the industry’s talking heads. If there’s a consensus among them, it’s that the government ought to rubber-stamp this corporate union quickly.

But the conventional wisdom is wrong. As much as I want to like the proposed “new” American — and I really do — I just can’t.

Passengers will probably pay more and get less. Cities are likely to lose airline service. Many airline employees might end up with pink slips.
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