“I have basically been ignored”

If you’re a United Airlines or Continental Airlines frequent flier, chances are you’re a little nervous about the impending corporate marriage that will create the world’s largest airline. Rightfully so.

Mergers are messy. Loyalty programs are complex things, and combining them is never easy. Just ask Delta Air Lines, which hooked up with Northwest Airlines last year and had to put the WorldPerks and SkyMiles programs together.
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New carry-on luggage limits and screening measures after Northwest Airlines terrorist incident

The thwarted terrorist bombing of Northwest Airlines flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit yesterday has triggered a series of new security measures by the U.S. government. Here’s what’s being said by the Transportation Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security.

Details remain sketchy for now. “Passengers may notice additional screening measures put into place to ensure the safety of the traveling public on domestic and international flights,” according to the TSA.

What, exactly, are “additional screening measures”?
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Help! Alamo won’t remember my miles

roadA thousand frequent flier miles may seem like nothing, which is probably what the folks at Alamo were thinking when David Goeman repeatedly asked the car rental company for his missing award points.

But little things matter. Alamo shouldn’t have forgotten about Goeman’s miles, whether it was 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 of them. And he shouldn’t have had to keep asking.

Alas, he did. And when nothing seemed to work, he turned to me.
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Airlines can be compassionate — if you know who to ask

Remember “no waivers, no favors,” the unbending, post-9/11 airline policy that said all rules were to be enforced, no exceptions? Kay Fore got a little flashback when she asked Northwest Airlines to refund her nonrefundable ticket after her husband had a kidney transplant last year. Turns out she was talking to the wrong people.

I know what you’re thinking: nonrefundable ticket. Refund. Get a grip, lady. You rolled the dice and lost.

But in the real world, that’s a completely impractical view. Fore’s other option was a refundable ticket, which cost twice as much as the nonrefundable one.

Why the price discrepancy? Refundable tickets are sold to business travelers, who can afford to pay a premium in exchange for the flexibility such a ticket offers.

In the real world — and at some level of the organization — airlines understand that and offer refunds on a case-by-case basis.

But at what level? Not the one Fore tried to contact at first.

I sent an e-mail to Northwest Airlines, explaining that because of complications and being hospitalized several time since surgery, we have not been able to use the credit and asked if the credit could be used by our daughter.

Their answer was “no.” The credit could only be used by him and his new travel has to be on or before June 8, 2009. At this time, we are unable to do any traveling before June.

Northwest Airlines was acquired by Delta Air Lines last year, so it would be easy to assume that whoever is left in its customer service department is on autopilot, reading scripts or sending out form responses. Not true.

I suggested that Fore contact one of the former customer service managers with her problem. She did.

Northwest called and because of extenuating circumstances they will be sending us a refund. Thank you for giving us the information to pursue this.

I’m encouraged by Northwest’s response. It suggests that the airline — and perhaps even Delta — understands that sometimes, despite your best efforts, you can’t take a nonrefundable flight. Or use a nonrefundable ticket credit.

The gesture cost Northwest a few hundred dollars. But the next time Fore has a choice in airlines, I’m willing to bet she’ll go with Northwest/Delta.

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The cat has diarrhea, the flight’s delayed, and all I get is 4,000 lousy miles?

Kelly Dehn just endured a nightmare flight on Northwest Airlines. It wasn’t that her four-hour trip from Minneapolis to Orange County, Calif., lasted an extra hour because the aircraft had to be de-iced. It wasn’t even that she was three months pregnant. It was her mysterious seatmate.

From the beginning, my husband and I noticed a smell that appeared to be some sort of passed gas.

These passed-gas emissions occurred every few seconds for the duration of the flight. We tried to identify its source. It seemed like someone was regularly passing gas or that someone with a full colostomy bag was sitting in near us. However, it did not smell human because it was very sulfur-like. We tried to adjust the fan jets on us, but it did little to overcome the smell.

Soon we both developed headaches. As I have allergies (dust, cats, and dogs), my headache became a migraine headache. I thought it was due to the dust on the plane. Neither my husband nor I had ever seen such a cloud of dust as was circulating in the plane when the sun streamed in. It was like the cabin cleaners’ vacuums had no filters and just re-emitted the dust back into the air and onto the upholstery.

I had difficulty breathing due to my allergies and the severe pain I was in. I tried to help alleviate it by drinking a lot of water. At some point toward the end of the flight, I used the bathroom. When I returned, I tripped over the sweatshirt stuffed under the seat in front of my aisle-seated neighbor, revealing a cat cage! The smell must have been the cat’s diarrhea.

Dehn was furious. Northwest had made no attempt to notify her she’d be sitting next to a cat. “This could have developed into an asthma attack or something else very serious,” she told me.

Because of Northwest allowing cats without warning other passengers, I lost more than 15 percent of my vacation suffering the effect. I don’t understand how this could be considered legal or even moral. I believe we should receive compensation from the airline for this problem. I also believe that laws should be changed to protect people from severe and common allergens such as cats.

Northwest’s contract of carriage is silent on the issue of pets and passengers. And to be honest, I wouldn’t expect it to address that kind of situation. This is more a question of airline policy, and it probably wouldn’t be published anywhere.

Dehn sent a letter to Northwest, requesting unspecified compensation. It replied with a letter saying that “regrettably, we cannot guarantee pet-free flights,” but that it does its best to ensure passengers are safe. It assured her that her comments would be shared with the appropriate people and offered her and her husband 4,000 miles each for the trouble.

Is that enough? No, says Dehn. “I couldn’t believe it,” she wrote to me in an email. “Four thousand miles?”

I agree that 4,000 miles isn’t a lot. But Dehn’s original letter, from which I excerpted earlier, didn’t offer any details about what kind of compensation she expected.

Northwest gets to punt this one to Delta, now that the two airlines have merged. An appeal to its new parent company might help, but I suspect the airline will regard 4,000 miles as plenty of compensation. In fact, it may view the miles as excessively generous in light of its recent billion-dollar loss.

Oddly, I think Delta might side with the passengers that pay the higher fare on this issue. In other words, it may support the cat.

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Are bereavement fares reserved for frequent fliers only?

Bereavement fares may be a dying breed, but some airlines still offer them — with strings attached. Sandra Ball was told she didn’t qualify for a Northwest Airlines special fare because she wasn’t a member of WorldPerks, the airline’s frequent flier program. Can it do that?

The short answer is: yes. But why would it want to?

Here’s Ball’s story.

On Dec. 10, my husband and I flew to Phoenix for his brother’s funeral. I booked through Travelocity after checking many different sites online.

After arriving in Phoenix, I learned that many others were able to fly for much less and it was suggested that request a bereavement fare. I talked to someone in the sales department, who said the bereavement fare would have cost $832 if available. My total flight cost was $941.

Ball asked Northwest for a refund, but was told only WorldPerks members qualified for a bereavement fare. I’ve never heard of an airline reserving bereavement fares for its best customers, so I suggested she write a polite e-mail to the powers that be at Northwest. A representative confirmed that a WorldPerks membership is a prerequisite for a bereavement fare, but that it should have been possible to enroll Ball at the time of her purchase.

While I understand your point of view regarding our bereavement fare policy, in the equitable fairness of other customer who have experienced similar situations, I am unable to offer you a refund for the fare difference. However, as a sincere gesture of goodwill, I have issued travel credit for you in the amount of $366. This amount reflects the fare difference between the ticket you purchased and our bereavement fare of $569.

Ball is relatively happy with the resolution, though she would have preferred a cash refund.

Lessons learned? Sometimes it pays to belong to an airline’s frequent flier program — even if you aren’t a frequent flier.

And yes, even airlines understand that grief-stricken passengers on their way to a funeral shouldn’t have to pay an overpriced walk-up fare. If this is what we can expect from the “new” Delta (which recently acquired Northwest) then things are looking up for passengers. I hope.

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