United Airlines and US Airways lead the pack, according to the Transportation Department, charging their customers $78 million and $66 million, respectively. (The figures on the chart are for the first quarter of 2009, and are in millions.)
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.
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.
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.
For her 35th wedding anniversary, Cheryl Cantillon’s children gave her a Northwest Airlines gift certificate. But when she tried to redeem the voucher for a ticket, the airline told her she’d have to wait. Now, bear in mind that someone paid cash for these vouchers and hoped Cantillon would use them for a flight — soon.
No can do, said Northwest. She would have to wait 10 days before she could buy a ticket. What’s more, the vouchers needed to be processed manually through one of Northwest’s call centers in India.
This means that you are paying human beings to do something that a computer can do. There is no business reason these gift certificate flights (with a credit card backup) can’t be handled the same way as any other credit card purchase.
Why does Northwest Airlines treat its own gift certificates like dirt?
I recommended Cantillon contact Northwest at a higher level with this question. She did, and the airline got back to her uncharacteristically fast.
Thank you for your email to Andy Roberts and Kristen Shovlin. They have asked that I respond to your concerns and extend their personal apologies for any confusion regarding the use of our gift certificates.
Please know gift certificates are electronic documents that can be issued by our automated process. However, if a gift certificate is purchased and redeemed on the same day, which is the case in this instance, due to security and fraud issues, the original credit card purchase must be verified prior to the issuance of the actual ticket.
While the itinerary and fare are confirmed, the tickets remain on queue for ticketing until the original purchase is verified. This process is in place for the protection of the credit card holder. Thank you for your understanding in this matter.
With that said, I have reviewed your reservation and have verified that the tickets have been issued for you upcoming trip to San Francisco. Thank you for choosing Northwest, I hope your trip is pleasant in every respect
In other words, Northwest doesn’t treat its gift certificates like dirt. But Cantillon’s kids probably could have saved themselves a lot of trouble by just buying their mother a ticket to San Francisco.
When an airline doesn’t play by its own rules, what recourse do you have? Foujan Ziadlou wanted to know after having one of the worst experiences of her life on Northwest Airlines.
Ziadlou was scheduled to fly from Buffalo, NY, to Bismarck, SD, on Christmas Eve. But her first flight was canceled because of a mechanical problem and she was rebooked the following morning.
When I asked the agent if there was anything he could do — reroute or anything of the sort — he was very rude and told me to come back tomorrow. I asked to speak to a supervisor, but when she arrived she was even more rude and antagonistic than the agent.
She sarcastically said she would pay for me to take a bus back to Toronto but that she would not give me a hotel or meal voucher for the 24 hours I would be stuck in Buffalo.
After mentioning that according to Rule 0240 Section 73, Northwest Airlines should provide me with accommodations and food vouchers, the agent turned to his supervisor and said “look, now she’s trying to tell us how to do our job.”
Northwest finally relented and offered her a hotel and meal voucher. But the next morning, the same agent checked her in and her luggage was lost. She spent the next nine days on the phone, trying to retrieve her belongings.
At one point, an agent even said to me over the phone “you know, you aren’t the only person who lost luggage over the holidays.”
Now that’s customer service. You can read Ziadlou’s entire account on her blog.
She complained to Northwest, which offered her 10,000 miles for the trouble. Ziadlou didn’t think that was enough. At my recommendation, she wrote to some higher-ups at Northwest, politely detailing her grievance. Here’s the response:
Please know the gesture of 10,000 bonus miles extended to you was not meant to place a value on your experience; rather it was an attempt to make amends for your disappointment with our service. I am sorry to learn you feel this gesture is unsatisfactory.
With that, I understand you are requesting an additional 40,000 bonus miles. However, in the equitable fairness of other customers who have experienced similar situations, I must respectfully decline this request.
The real problem here isn’t the inadequate compensation — that’s to be expected — or the customer-hostile attitude exhibited by Northwest’s employees. It is that the airline failed to follow its own rules and belittled a passenger who tried to point out that she wasn’t being treated fairly.
Did the Northwest agent incorrectly tag her luggage in retribution? I report, you decide.
My best advice for Ziadlou and others like her is to file a formal complaint to the Transportation Department.
Aviation Consumer Protection Division, C-75
U.S. Department of Transportation
400 7th Street, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20590
Here’s how to contact the DOT
Northwest’s unwillingness to follow its own contract should be made a part of its permanent record.
Connie Fournier finally has her Northwest Airlines frequent flier miles and a partial refund this morning. In order to get them, she had to fight the airline for more than a month, appeal her case to a supervisor, and enlist my help.
That shouldn’t have been necessary. Not at a time like this.
We’re about to have a year of naycations, and that can’t be good for the airline industry. Shouldn’t Northwest (soon to be Delta) and the other major airlines be doing everything they can to keep the customers they have?
Consider Fournier’s story. She bought a ticket for her sister’s 50th birthday using a combination of miles and money. She says no one told her the miles were nonrefundable (although she could have found out by asking or consulting Northwest’s site). Then tragedy struck.
My-85-year old father fell and broke his hip causing a long hospital stay, rehab and moving to a care facility. As his primary POA, my sister being secondary, we have been handling his care and affairs, which are ongoing.
My sister’s daughter had emergency surgery at the same time to remove a tumor from her intestines. My sister is now caring for her three grandchildren while her daughter recovers.
When I called to seek a refund I was told they could do nothing for me, not even a reuse of the tickets in the future or the use of my miles. Nothing! I paid over $1,600 and received nothing in return for an emergency completely out of my control.
Northwest turned her down in writing, too.
We regret you were unable to travel as planned. We offer a variety of fares in all markets to meet the varied needs of our customers. Many of our fares contain restrictions such as nonrefundable with a 100% cancellation penalty, even when an unforeseeable situation prevents the ticket from being used as planned. Since the airfare purchased has these restrictions we are unable to offer a refund. We regret our answer could not be more favorable.
That’s a boilerplate answer if I’ve ever seen one. When Fournier contacted me, I suggested she appeal this to someone higher up at Northwest. I gave her a few names.
It worked. A brief, polite appeal to the airline yielded a more favorable response.
I am very sorry to learn of your father’s fall and your niece’s emergency surgery. I can only imagine how stressful these events must have been. I hope both your niece and your father are well on their way to a full recovery.
Please know I regret you were unable to use your nonrefundable tickets to Italy as planned and appreciate the opportunity to review this matter for you. As you have been advised, the terms and conditions of our PerkChoice promotion are very restrictive. While the mileage portion of the tickets can be redeposited for a $50.00 administrative fee, the monetary portion of these tickets is nonrefundable. This holds true even if your travel plans changed due to unforeseen circumstances including illness or circumstances that were unknown at the time of purchase and were beyond your control.
However, we do realize there can be extenuating circumstances, such as yours, which can prevent our passengers from utilizing their tickets as planned. Due to your special circumstances, as a one-time exception I will authorize a full refund along with the redeposit of your miles less a $150 administrative fee. I will send this authorization to our Refunds department who will contact you under separate cover.
Now that’s better.
But here’s my question: At a time like this, with the economy in the tank, shouldn’t airline be authorizing their agents to do everything in their power to keep customers happy?
The misguided airline apologists who read my blog would probably say: no. Rules are rules. Fournier should have bought a full-fare, unrestricted ticket.
The rest of us know the correct answer, of course. This is no time to be sending form letter denials, and effectively showing customers the door.
Contrary to what your airline might tell you, those highly annoying “call center fees” it charges for buying your tickets by phone aren’t necessarily nonrefundable. Not if you know who to contact.
I mention this for two reasons. Call center fees are likely to rise as airlines look for new ways to raise money. And there’s still a sizable segment of the population that prefers to do business by phone, and that has no choice but to cough up the fee for each ticket.
Jim Larney thought Northwest Airlines should repay the $30 booking fee when he encountered a glitch while buying tickets from Hartford, Conn., to Cork, Ireland.
The only way I could book online was to create separate transactions from Hartford to Amsterdam round trip and Amsterdam to Cork round trip. So I called Northwest Airlines and they booked the entire itinerary. The reservation agent told me there would be a $30 call center ticketing fee for booking the flights.
When I explained that Northwest Airlines’ online booking system would not allow me to make one booking from Hartford-Amsterdam-Cork round trip, the agent replied that she would waive the $30 fee.
To make a long story short, one of his flights was canceled and the entire fare was refunded — minus the $30 booking fee.
“I believe that refusing to refund the call center ticketing fee is illegal, because Northwest canceled direct service between Hartford and Amsterdam,” he told me.
I believe he’s right. I gave Larney the executive contacts at Northwest and suggested he write a brief, polite email asking for the return of his fee.
A few days after sending a note to Andrew Roberts, Northwest’s executive vice president of operations, he had his $30 back.
Nice work, Northwest. Now, about that call center fee …
The on-again, off-again merger between United Airlines and US Airways may be off for now, but the two airlines are together at last — at the top of the Transportation Department’s list of most complained-about airlines.
Although these government reports are delayed by more than a month (the latest one, released this morning and sugarcoated for your viewing pleasure, is for April) and prone to manipulation (airlines routinely and successfully contest their numbers with the Department of Transportation) they are nonetheless instructive.
Here are the 10 most complained-about airlines:
1. UNITED AIRLINES
2.55 complaints per 100,000 enplanements
2. US AIRWAYS
2.51 complaints per 100,000 enplanements
3. DELTA AIR LINES
2.16 complaints per 100,000 enplanements
4. AMERICAN AIRLINES
2.05 complaints per 100,000 enplanements
5. AMERICAN EAGLE AIRLINES
1.48 complaints per 100,000 enplanements
6. ATLANTIC SOUTHEAST AIRLINES
1.39 complaints per 100,000 enplanements
7. CONTINENTAL AIRLINES
1.08 complaints per 100,000 enplanements
1.05 complaints per 100,000 enplanements
9. NORTHWEST AIRLINES
0.97 complaints per 100,000 enplanements
10. AIRTRAN AIRWAYS
0.96 complaints per 100,000 enplanements
Although only three of the top 10 airlines are regional carriers, my sense is that regional airlines get more than their fare share of complaints.
Why don’t you read more about it? Because the smallest commuter airlines aren’t subject to DOT reporting requirements. So in effect, no one is keeping track.
Q: You may be my last resort so I’m certainly hoping you can help me.
Last summer I applied for a mortgage through Northwest Airlines and Lending Tree that entitled me to 18,375 frequent flier miles. I received a mortgage loan for $105,000, but I’m still waiting for my miles.
Part of the problem is the finger-pointing between Northwest Airlines, Home Loan Center and Lending Tree. I have contacted Northwest customer service and it says the miles have to come from either Lending Tree or Home Loan Center. When I call either of them, they say that the other company needs to pay Northwest for the miles.
I’ve been bounced around between supervisors, trying to get this sorted out. But every time I make some progress, a supervisor leaves and my case is turned over to someone else. Then we have to start again from the beginning. Can you please help me receive some resolution on this issue? – Dave Herstad, Bloomington, Minn.
A: You should have received your Northwest miles when your mortgage closed. This is a common problem with award miles promotions, because a third party – a bank, mortgage broker, or some other company – typically buys the rewards from the airline and then credits your frequent flier account. At least it’s supposed to.
Phoning Northwest Airlines when your miles failed to show up was a good idea. Following up with your mortgage company by telephone was also a good idea. But staying on the phone was a mistake that cost you more than time. (I’ll explain what I mean in a minute.)
You should have written to Northwest, copying Home Loan Center and Lending Tree. I list all the customer service contacts for the airline on my Web site (www.elliott.org/help). Having a paper trail ensures at the very least that you won’t need to explain your situation to another supervisor, because there will already be something in writing.
Repeated phone calls only guaranteed more finger-pointing and a resolution that has taken the better part of a year. But unlike a financial investment, frequent flier miles do not appreciate – they actually decline in value over time.
Just look at the last year’s worth of announcements from any of the major airlines. They’ve made it more difficult to cash in your miles, demanded more miles for award tickets, and imposed restrictions on rewards programs that make your miles easier to expire. The longer you waited, the less valuable your promised 18,375 frequent flier miles became.
There’s no disputing that rewards programs are one of the most profitable parts of an airline’s business (it’s such a moneymaker that one carrier, Air Canada, spun off its rewards program into a separate business a few years ago). It’s equally undisputed that frequent flier programs are habit-forming and can lead to all kinds of bad behavior, from buying an expensive airline ticket to needlessly refinancing your home.
Now, I’m not saying that your mortgage was unnecessary. What I (BEGIN ITALICS) am (END ITALICS) saying is that promotions like the one you participated in can lead people to make decisions that aren’t in their best interests. Doing it for the miles doesn’t always make sense.
I contacted Northwest on your behalf. The airline asked Home Loan Center about your mortgage, and your frequent flier account was promptly credited for your missing miles.
Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines have finally announced their long-awaited merger this evening. No big surprises in the news release. We knew the Northwest name would be retired, and we knew how this would be spun.
Northwest is trying to assure its best customers that there’s only an upside to this deal. Here’s what its frequent fliers received this evening:
As a valued Northwest Airlines customer and WorldPerks® member, I wanted you to be among the first to hear that we have announced a merger with Delta Air Lines. Subject to regulatory review, our two airlines are joining forces to create America’s premier global airline which, upon closing of the merger, will be called Delta Air Lines.
By combining Northwest and Delta, we are building a stronger, more resilient airline that will be a leader in providing customer service and value. Our combined airline will offer unprecedented access to the world, enabling you to fly to more destinations, have more flight choices and more ways than ever to earn and redeem your WorldPerks miles.
You can be assured that your WorldPerks miles and Elite program status will be unaffected by this merger. In addition, you can continue to earn miles through use of partners like WorldPerks Visa®. And once the new Delta Air Lines emerges you can look forward to being a part of the world’s largest frequent flyer program with expanded benefits.
The combined Delta Air Lines will serve more U.S. communities and connect to more worldwide destinations than any global airline. Our hubs – both Delta’s and Northwest’s – will be retained and enhanced. We will be the only U.S. airline to offer direct service from the United States to all of the world’s major business centers in Asia, Latin America, Europe, Africa and around North America.
Both airlines bring tremendous strengths to this new partnership. Our complementary service networks form an end-to-end system that is truly greater than the sum of its parts. This is a merger by addition, not subtraction, which means all of our hubs – both Northwest’s and Delta’s – will be retained. In addition, building on both airlines’ proud, decades-long history of serving small communities, we plan to enhance global connections to small towns and cities across the U.S.
All of these positive benefits of our combination mean that we can:
* Offer a true global network where our customers will be able to fly to more destinations, have more schedule options and more opportunities to earn and redeem frequent flyer miles in what will become the world’s best and most comprehensive frequent flyer program.
* Continue to serve our current roster of destinations and to maintain our hubs in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Detroit, Memphis, Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York, Salt Lake City, Amsterdam and Tokyo.
* Improve our customers’ travel experience, through new products and services including enhanced self-service tools, better bag-tracking technology, more onboard services, including more meal options, new seats and refurbished cabins.
While we work to secure approval of our merger, which may take up to 6 to 8 months, it will be business-as-usual at both airlines. We will continue to operate as independent airlines and the people of Northwest will remain focused on providing you with the very best in safe, reliable and convenient air travel. At the same time, both airlines will be planning for a seamless integration of our two airlines, one that delivers to you the enhanced benefits that will earn – and retain – your preference.
As we work through this process, we will keep you informed at every step along the way. Thank you for your business and we look forward to serving you on your next Northwest flight.
Managing Director, WorldPerks
No disrespect to Bob, but I don’t know if I’m buying any of this. Are you?
It’s Thursday, and there’s still no announcement that Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines will merge. Frustrating for shareholders and airline beat reporters? Yes. But a Godsend for air travelers, who would almost certainly benefit from a more competitive airline industry.
The unlikely heroes are airline pilots who reportedly have misgivings about this corporate marriage.
People close to the Delta-Northwest talks said the pilots unions have agreed on a comprehensive joint contract, but cannot agree to how seniority for the 12,000 pilots would work under a combined carrier. The people asked not to be named because of the sensitive stage of the talks.
If they can’t come to terms, it would’t necessarily stop the merger. But it would make it far more difficult.
Pilots at US Airways and America West waited until after the 2005 announcement that the airlines would combine to try to hammer out a seniority and joint contract accord. Nearly three years later, no joint pilot contract has been reached.
The pilots on both sides know how difficult the integration of US Airways and America West has been, and they are understandably reluctant to go into a merger without a deal.
But something tells me there’s more at stake than seniority issues. The pilots must also be pondering their future under a merged Delta-Northwest. They may not like what they see.
Neither will passengers. Combining Delta-Northwest will be bad for customers. Period.
Delta, Northwest and the other air carriers that are so eager to mate, have convinced the public in general — and the business press in particular — that they will go under if they have to continue flying solo.
I’m not convinced that the airlines will fail on their own. Only that if they’re allowed to merge, they will fail us.