She had a stroke and can’t fly — should her airline waive the $150 change fee?

And now, a follow-up to yesterday’s post about reservation change fees. Passengers are upset about these surcharges, which often reduce the value of their ticket credit to just a few dollars. Airline apologists call the fees a “proven revenue model” that will continue for as long as people fly.

But there’s a glimmer of hope for air travelers.

Consider what happened to Norma Goldwyn, who abruptly canceled her flight from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to New York on Delta Air Lines last month because of health problems. Goldwyn asked her travel agent for a refund, and was told Delta would only offer her a ticket credit, minus a $150 change fee, which would have left her with a $59 voucher.

Delta charged an astounding $406 million in reservation change fees last year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. (Only American Airlines collected more in 2009.) In the first quarter of 2010, Delta collected $165 million in change fees, which means that if the current trend holds, it will have extracted $660 million from its customers this year. That would be a new record.

But where does the business model end and compassion begin? Goldwyn had every intention of making her flight, but couldn’t. It was an event beyond her control — what airlines might call a force majeure event, or an act of God. Airlines aren’t responsible for these events, according to their contracts of carriage. Should her health problem have cost her $150?
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London hotel takes a hard line on stranded air traveler’s refund request

Yotel is a Japanese-style capsule hotel at London’s Heathrow airport. It won the Business Travel World Award for best accommodations — a fact that its managers repeat endlessly in their email signatures. But volcanic eruptions? Not their problem.

John Ward discovered that when he was trapped in Istanbul last week after the volcanic eruption. An associate tried to secure a refund of his room deposit, with disappointing results.
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Starwood tweaks onerous cancellation policy after customers compare it to airlines

wWhen Stewart Sheinfeld redeemed 10,000 Starwood points for a night at the W Chicago Lakeshore, he found a strange new rule at the bottom of his confirmation. It said if he canceled his room after 6 p.m. on the day of his arrival, he wouldn’t just lose his points — he’d also have to pay $689.

“I was shocked,” he says.

Sheinfeld checked the W’s rates on its site, and found that they were $279. That meant instead of forfeiting his points for being a no-show, Starwood was threatening to charge him the rack rate — the hotel equivalent of sticker price — for the room.

“This makes the airlines’ rules look good,” he says.

Has Starwood lost touch with reality here?
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Warning: airlines dodging new European consumer protection laws

Think you’re protected by European consumer laws like EU 261/2004, which forces air carriers to compensate passengers in the event of a delay or cancellation? Think again. A report by the UK watchdog Air Transport Users Council concludes airlines have found a clever way around the rule.

Essentially, they are giving the cold shoulder to passengers who either make a connection on the same carrier or self-book trips on two or more airlines. But that isn’t the only way around the new and largely misunderstood consumer law.

According to the report:

The AUC has received a number of complaints both from passengers who have been left out of pocket because they have missed a flight connection on a “through” ticket on a “network” carrier, and from passengers who have attempted to make their own “connections” on two completely separately contracted flights.

The agency notes that if a passenger has a “through” ticket with a network airline, the airline has a contractual obligation to get them to their destination should they miss their connection. But it would not necessarily offer them any assistance during the delay to their journey.

Under an International Air Transport Association (IATA) Resolution, that is binding on member airlines (most network carriers), the “forwarding air carrier” should provide refreshments and hotel accommodation to passengers who miss their connection when connecting from one IATA airline to another. But the Resolution does not apply if passengers are connecting between two flights of the same airline.

In that case, it’s the airline’s decision to pay for meals and hotel accommodation. While many do, there are at least two notable exceptions. KLM does not provide assistance if the delay to the first flight was due to anything that they consider “outside their control” such as air traffic control or weather. And Continental Airlines goes as far as to say so in its conditions of carriage.

A second way around EU 261/2004 is what I’d call the “not our problem” excuse. A number of passengers make their own connections by buying two or more tickets under separate reservations for flights that connect with each other at an intermediate airport, according to the report. That either saves them time or reduces their travel time.

However, with such connections, each ticket is bought under a separate reservation (and therefore a separate contract) and both carriers have no obligation to refund passengers or put them on another of its flight should passengers miss their connection We have received a number of complaints from passengers who have missed such a connection and have had to pay for a new ticket, often at a more expensive, last minute, fare. And they often have also had to buy meals, and maybe a room for the night, if the next flight isn’t till much later or the next day.

This is a little trickier, because it isn’t clear which airline would be responsible for the compensation. Should carrier A, which had the delay, pay for the hotel? Or should carrier B, to which a passenger is connecting, pick up the tab? The AUC suggests the best way to prevent this from being a problem is educating self-booking air travelers on the risks of buying separate itineraries.

A third way airlines are getting around the rule, which isn’t mentioned in this report, is by playing semantic games. For example, airlines are reluctant to cancel a flight because they would have to pay out more compensation. So they simply “delay” their flight indefinitely. Similarly, airlines are willing to say that almost anything is “beyond their control” in order to wiggle out of EU 261/2004, which has a clause that lets airlines off the hook for circumstances that are out of their hands.

Here’s a tip: if you think your airline is playing fast and loose with Europe’s consumer protection laws, send a firm letter to the airline. It should contain two things. First, mention that you are willing to take this to court if necessary. And second, say that the carrier didn’t follow EU 261/2004.

I’m told that the letter will be assigned a high priority and settled quickly, since airlines will do anything to to avoid having their interpretation of EU 261/2004 challenged in a European court.