Should I shame, sue – or take it straight to the top?

Ever want to see how customers screw up? Then spend a few hours looking over the shoulder of a consumer advocate.

Watch the emails come in — and learn.

“Need help getting a refund on a non-refundable airline ticket,” the subject line reads on a message I received a few minutes ago.

I get a lot of travel complaints.

“Yesterday, I went to ER due to heart palpitation and chest pain,” the passenger explained. He phoned his airline to ask for a refund due to his medical condition — an understandable request, coming from someone who’s an infrequent flier.
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Blocking this airline mega-merger is good for travelers

Christopher Parypa /
Christopher Parypa /
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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The smarter consumer: When to sue a company — and when to shame it

Don’t have a tantrum.

You might feel like it after a company says “no” to your polite email asking for a refund, product replacement or an extension on your warranty. But you should understand that “no” is often a default answer, a kneejerk response to a customer question.

Yes, even on the third or fourth try. Even after you’ve filed a credit-card dispute – and lost.
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TSA backtracks on private screeners amid lawsuits

It’s not hard to image how much louder the public outcry would have been during the pat-down controversy last year if the Transportation Security Administration had also shut down it Screening Partnership Program, which allowed airports to privatize their security.

After all, private screeners were seen as a loophole to avoid increasingly aggressive federal transportation security officers. Several airports were reportedly considering “firing” their TSA screeners after the new body-scanners began appearing, accompanied by more intrusive physical searches.

In short, the program was an escape valve through which the traveling public let out a steam of rage. Had it not been there, who knows what would have happened?

But here’s more evidence that the federal agency charged with protecting our transportation systems understands the importance of timing. It waited until yesterday — two months after the enhanced-screening media circus — to freeze the program. I wonder how long they’ve been meaning to do that.

So what does that mean to us?
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Troubled TSA heads into holidays with egg on its face

Just when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse for the beleaguered Transportation Security Administration, they have.

This morning I reported on a new poll that says travelers feel the federal agency charged with protecting our transportation systems offered the travel industry’s worst customer service in 2010 — worse, even, than the nation’s airlines. But that is likely the least of its worries; after all, the agency apparently doesn’t care about its public image.

The latest incident involves a passenger who passed through a checkpoint with a handgun. Airport security is known to be porous, but this latest example, in which a loaded snub nose “baby” Glock pistol managed to get carried through a Houston TSA screening area without being detected, is shocking by any standard.

It gets worse. Last week, respected security expert Bruce Schneier confirmed what we’d suspected for several weeks: The TSA turned off most of its full-body scanners on Opt-Out Day, and oh, by the way, the current security procedures at the airport don’t work. At all.

But there’s more.
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Lawsuits against TSA are piling up quickly

The Transportation Security Administration’s little body-scanning/pat-down problem isn’t just keeping us media types busy. Lawyers are having a field day with it, too.

The latest lawsuit against the TSA was filed earlier this week by two Harvard Law School students who claim the airport security checks involving full-body scanners and pat-downs are unconstitutional. The suit claims the screenings violate their Fourth Amendment rights prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures.

Here’s a rundown of the most high-profile cases.
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Thank you

It’s official — the lawsuit against me has been dismissed.

I wanted to take a minute to thank everyone who helped:

• My Florida-based attorney, Greg Herbert of Greenberg Traurig in Orlando, who understood that this was about more than a blogger being sued by a travel agency. The case raised some important First Amendment and press freedom issues, and I’m grateful that he saw them and was willing to devote his energies to helping me.

• The Society of Professional Journalists’ Legal Defense Fund, which awarded me a grant to help with my legal expenses. In particular, I want to thank Clint Brewer, chair of the SPJ National Legal Defense Fund, and Salley Shannon of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, both of whom were instrumental in making the grant happen.

• My lawyer, Anthony Elia, who told me six months ago that the case was over. Anthony — you were right.

• The Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, which helped me find legal representation, and Charles Davis, the executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition and Creve Coeur City Council Member Laura Bryant, who introduced me to the Berkman Center.

• The various media outlets and blogs who covered my case, including Diane Lade at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Jim Gaines at Orlando Weekly, Jim Walker at Cruise Law News and SLAPP expert Marc Randazza.

• None of this would have been possible without you, the readers of this site. Many of you offered to help by writing to your elected representatives, encouraging them to restart Florida’s stalled investigation into travel agencies that sold unlicensed insurance. It was your phone calls, emails and letters that pushed the state of Florida to finish this investigation, which has led to numerous settlement agreements with travel agencies.

After this experience, I feel a responsibility to get behind new laws that would prohibit so-called SLAPP suits, or strategic lawsuits against public participation. The Citizen Participation Act (H.R. 4364) is a good start, as is supporting a group like the Public Participation Project.

Thank you, all.

(Photo: v ernhart/Flickr Creative Commons)

No more lawsuit limits for passengers under proposed government rules

Editor’s note: This is part eleven in a series about the Transportation Department’s sweeping new airline passenger protection rules. You can read the entire document here (.DOC). Please take a moment to comment on these proposed rules at The future of air travel depends on it.

As someone who is currently being sued, you might think I’m the last person who would support a new rule that would allow more people to file a lawsuit against an airline.

But you’d be wrong.

True, getting sued is no fun. But I don’t think the airlines are having fun, anyway. Maybe their passengers will after this passes.

At issue is something called a choice of forum. Forum choice, in the legal sense, is a clause that allows the the parties to agree that any litigation resulting from a contract will be initiated in a specific court.
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Lawsuit update: Legal bloggers rally to support free speech online

I wanted to take a moment to say “thank you” for the support I’ve gotten from lawyers in the blogosphere after being hit with a frivolous defamation lawsuit from a Florida travel agency earlier this year.

We’ve filed a motion to dismiss the suit and there’s no question that the case will be thrown out of court with prejudice.

In the meantime, it has become clear to the experts that this case was filed with the sole purpose of silencing this blog — what’s called a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP), or a suit intended to censor, intimidate and silence someone by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism.
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When travel companies sue their customers

When a young woman named Carissa knocked at my door on a recent Saturday evening and introduced herself as a process server, I knew things were about to get interesting.

And when I read the civil action summons she handed me, I was intrigued.

A Florida-based travel agency had sued me for reporting about its legal troubles on my blog. (I won’t name the agency, because I think part of the reason it filed a complaint was because it craves publicity. Denied.) Next to my name on the suit, I recognized the name of one of the agency’s clients.

Yes, the company was taking one of its own customers to court.
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Lost in translation? Airline cancels reservation but charges passenger anyway

Can an airline charge you for a ticket it canceled? If you said “not in America” you’re right.

Barbara Salvadore booked a ticket from Frankfurt to Vienna last fall through Air Berlin. But when she called the carrier to confirm her flight, a representative told her her tickets had been canceled because of a problem with her credit card. She went to the airport on the day of her departure to see if she could use another card, but the airline insisted that she pay a walk-up fare that was seven times higher than the original price. She decided to take the train, instead.

End of story? Not quite.

I received a letter from Air Berlin stating I owed them money for the flight that I booked. I e-mailed them back, explained to them that they were the one who canceled my flight and I did not fly Air Berlin.

I received my second letter today stating I owe Air Berlin 149 Euro or they will take legal action against me.

I am clueless why I would owe Air Berlin money since I did not fly with them and they canceled my flight. From my e-mail correspondence with them, they do not seem to understand they are asking for payment for a service not rendered.

I thought there must be some kind of misunderstanding, so I contacted Air Berlin on Salvadore’s behalf. Diane Daedelow, a spokeswoman for the airline, responded:

We strongly regret the inconvenience caused. Although, we want to refer to our terms and conditions to which a customer agrees with the booking of a flight.

“Terms and Conditions “Prices / Payment”:

2.3. If a credit card company or bank refuses to settle the claim arising from the contract for reasons that are the customer’s responsibility, the customer shall be required to pay a flat rate of 10 EUR as compensation for the bank’s return debit note. The customer is free, under German law, to prove that the airline did not suffer any loss or that the loss incurred was significantly less.

Otherwise the Airline shall be entitled to terminate the contract in accordance with sections 5.1.1-5.2 and levy the charges stipulated therein if the period allowed for payment has expired without effect.”

Additionally, we learned that Ms Salvadore booked the “Saver fare” modus:

“5.1.2. If a ticket for a short-haul or medium-haul flight (the great circle distance between departure point and destination being less than 3,000 miles) booked as a saver fare is not used or is cancelled, the Airline shall be entitled in accordance with the law to demand the agreed remuneration less any savings in expenditure made and/or possible alternative uses of the service booked. Objections raised by the customer shall be taken into account in accordance with section 5.3.”

Following our database, Ms Salvadore were informed by E-Mail on 16.10.2008 that her credit card could not be charged. But we also learned, due to spam filters not every E-Mail reaches directly the addressed inbox.

As I read the rule, Salvadore might be liable for a 10 euro charge. But billing her for a flight she couldn’t take seemed problematic. I asked Daedelow if the 149 euro charge might be an honest mistake. It wasn’t.

In fact, the number of 149 euro is the outstanding payment for the flight. If a customer cancels a flight booked one day before rsp. the day of departure, the amount of charge corresponds 100% with the price booked. If a customer booked a flight without taking the flight and without a cancellation upfront, the price has to be balanced as well. Due to the fact that Ms Salvadore neither cancelled nor took the flight, the bill about 149 euro has to be acquitted.

I followed up with Air Berlin several times, asking if it could clarify a few things. After all, Salvadore didn’t cancel her ticket — Air Berlin did. Did it do enough to notify the customer and explain her obligations under its terms?

The standard operating procedure in such a case is: with the notice about a problem during the payment procedure e.g. the credit card number given does not exists, Air Berlin extends the time limit in favour of the customer to initiate the payment – or via a valid credit card, alternatively via direct debit to a bank account.

After what I considered to be a very polite back-and-forth with Air Berlin, the airline stopped responding to my questions. So Salvadore is left with a threatening letter that demands payment for a flight she never received.

If this were happening in the United States, the Fair Credit Billing Act would protect her from Air Berlin’s policies. In fact, it is unimaginable to the American consumer that any company could charge for something it never delivered.

I think it all comes down to disclosure. Was Salvadore informed of Air Berlin’s policies? Did it let her know that under its terms, she would be liable for the ticket even if she didn’t fly? If you ask Daedelow, the answer is “yes.” But Salvadore would disagree. Neither the Air Berlin reservations agent nor the ticket agent at the Frankfurt airport warned her of this policy.

I don’t know enough about German law to advise Salvadore on her next move. Should she pay for the ticket and put this matter behind her? Should she ignore the airline and risk litigation?

I take a dim view of travel companies that threaten to sue their customers, so my first instinct would be to fight this on principle.

What’s yours?

See you in court: 5 times when you should just sue ’em

Sometimes the last resort should be your first choice. That’s what Linda Sesa learned when she found herself stranded in St. Lucia recently.

Sesa, a nurse practitioner from Yardley, Pa., had missed her flight to Charlotte because a US Airways employee mistakenly asked her to stand in the wrong check-in line. The airline refused to pick up the $1,500 tab for a return flight on another carrier, instead offering two $400 vouchers for her inconvenience. “I felt helpless and totally baffled over the entire situation,” she says.

So Sesa did what increasing numbers of travelers are doing today. She took an airline to court. And she won.

No one knows how many travel-related cases are in the courts now. There aren’t any reliable surveys that aggregate actions in local, state and federal court or break out the number of cases that deal with airlines, car rental companies or hotels. But there’s significant anecdotal evidence that a group of disgruntled customers are simply bypassing the normal grievance process and suing.

Before I continue, a disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer, and this column isn’t meant to dispense any legal advice. But I am an expert on complaints — I write the Travel Troubleshooter column that appears on this site — and I’ve advised many travelers as their cases have worked their way through the courts.

Lately, I’ve noticed people’s patience with the traditional complaint process — writing a letter, waiting for a reply, sending a probable appeal — is wearing thin. It’s as if they know they’ll be turned down and think they have a better chance of getting compensated by getting the law involved immediately.

Often, they do. Although the number of wins is just as difficult to find as the number of travel-related cases, my notebook tells me that passengers and hotel guests are doing pretty well in court, thanks very much. Most of the action is happening in a small-claims court, where the costs (and as far as the companies are concerned, the stakes) are relatively low. You don’t need an attorney, and you often win by default because the other side doesn’t show up.

Here are five times when you should consider skipping the complaints process and going straight to court:

When they’re playing games. Sesa’s problem is a good example of a travel company monkeying around with a customer. It repeatedly acknowledged its error and sent her a form letter that claimed “customer satisfaction is our main focus,” but then repeatedly disappointed her by refusing to pay for a new ticket back home. Sesa didn’t like the games, so she took US Airways to small claims court. Apparently, the airline thought that was all part of the game. “No one from US Airways showed up,” she remembers. “The judge asked me what happened, I told her, she was appalled, and I won by default.” Game over.

When they’ve broken a contract. In 1987, Mostyn Lloyd and his wife paid $250 each for a Hilton Senior HHonors lifetime membership. The card entitled them to room and meal discounts, as well as other perks. Hilton recently informed the couple that it was canceling the senior program. “I consider that a breach of contract,” he says. Hilton argues that its terms allow it to cancel the program anytime. (I contacted the hotel chain, and a spokeswoman told me she’s looking into the matter.) Lloyd says that argument makes no sense, and that the clause Hilton has invoked only applies to members of the program, not to the program itself. Maybe that’s something for a judge to decide.

When they’re being dishonest. I. Milton Karabell, a travel agent from Philadelphia, told me the following story: A few years ago, one of his clients booked a package that ended up not being quite what he expected. “After his return, we concluded that the ad for the package was false and misleading, and that he had costs he shouldn’t have incurred,” he remembers. Karabell told his client to go to small claims court, where, he remembers, the tour operator’s lawyers “arrived with checkbooks in hand.” Sometimes, it’s pointless to argue with a company about a claim it may or may not have made. Sometimes, the best place to settle an argument like this is in a court of law.

When they’re ignoring you. One of the easiest ways to get a travel company’s attention is to sue it, of course. Which wouldn’t be necessary if it was paying attention to you in the first place. So when one of my readers, who asked to remain nameless because he works for the government, recently wrote to me about an airline service problem, the answer seemed clear: sue. He’d been on a flight on which his business-class seat didn’t work, and wanted a partial refund. His airline paid no attention to his arguments — until it received a summons to appear in a California Superior Court. Shortly thereafter, he received a letter from the air carrier with a more generous settlement offer, which he accepted.

When they aren’t listening to reason. Mohit Singla says he’s headed to court because American Airlines is being unreasonable. He tried to board a flight from Chicago to Dallas recently, and although he had a valid boarding pass, the airline stopped him from getting on the flight. “My seat was given to people on a waiting list,” he says. He paid $800 to fly to Dallas on Southwest, and wants American to cover the cost of the new ticket. It won’t. “I feel insulted,” he told me. There’s more on Singla’s story and a fascinating discussion of the relevant airline rules on my blog. When you feel as if a travel company has stopped listening to reason, it’s time to start filling out your court papers.

Let me put it to you like this: if your travel company is lying, breaking its own rules, being obstinate or just ignoring you, you ought to consider taking it to court.

You never know what could happen. Jane Waun didn’t when she took Spirit Airlines to East Lansing (Mich.) 54B District Court recently. The airline had canceled her flight at Detroit Metro Airport and failed to rebook her and her family. Waun had to buy new tickets on another airline and spend the night in a hotel, which cost her $1,350.

Spirit, like other airlines, has a contract that lets it do more or less whatever it wants. A lost cause? I asked Ellen Creager, who wrote a terrific account of the trial for the Detroit Free Press, about what happened in court, and that’s not the way it ended. In a remarkable David-and-Goliath twist, Waun won. (If my memory serves correctly, the verdict was greeted with applause in the courtroom.)

I’m not surprised. At a time when America’s judges are contending the same substandard service that we do when we’re on the road, the courts have probably never been friendlier to the interests of travelers. Case closed.