Oh dear, did we forget to mention that $500 change fee?

By | August 20th, 2010

Question: My wife and I recently flew from Vancouver to Ecuador on Continental Airlines, then to Lima on LAN Chile. After booking the trip through our travel agent of about 20 years, we asked if we could change the LAN leg from Quito to Lima by two days without penalty.

Our travel agent called Continental and was told that the LAN leg could be changed without any change fee because we weren’t changing any Continental legs. He asked if they were certain that there would be no change fee and was assured that was the policy. He had another follow-up discussion with a Continental agent and was given the same information. We changed the flight.

Two months after our flight, our agent was advised that we should have been charged a change fee of $500 and an electronic fee transaction was applied to the travel agent’s bank account. Our travel agency has challenged the payment with Continental without success.

Today I called Continental and spoke to an international ticket agent. She said my agent had no recourse, and should have known the rules. When I asked her how Continental expects travel agents to know the rules, but not their own agents, I didn’t get an answer. I asked to speak to a supervisor about my complaint, but was told “there is no point as the booking is no longer in our computer system.”

If Continental had told us that there would be a $500 change fee when we first enquired about the change we would not have changed our flight to Lima. It is very high-handed of Continental to conduct business in this manner. We would greatly appreciate anything you might do to help. — Brian Petersmeyer, Vancouver, Canada


Answer: Continental shouldn’t have charged your travel agent $500 after your flight. And even if it had, you shouldn’t have been dragged into it.

Let’s take these issues one at a time. The charge from Continental to your agent is referred to as a debit memo. Airlines send them to travel agents when they’ve booked a ticket incorrectly (or, as they often like to say, illegally). The problem with these memos is that they’re arbitrary and sometimes unreasonable. If an agency doesn’t pay the fine, it could lose its ability to write an airline ticket.

Related story:   Why is my travel agency making it so hard to get my $9,000 back?

You’re correct in your assessment of the airline’s position. Airlines (not just Continental) expect agents to know their rules, and when they violate them, air carriers are quick to demand that they pay whatever penalty they see fit. I would have no problem with this, as long as airlines were clear about their rules. In your case, it appears Continental’s employees misinformed your agent.

Should you have forked over $500? No. You used a travel agent and paid a booking fee because of his expertise. Also, you paid your travel agent for the tickets, not the airline. I can certainly understand why an agent might be tempted to pass along a debit memo to a client, but in almost every circumstance, I don’t think the customer is responsible for a fare difference or penalty. It’s your agent’s problem.

You might have cleared this up by sending a brief, polite email to Continental. I list the names of customer service executives on the On Your Side wiki (http://onyoursi.de/wiki/). A written query might have initiated a more thorough investigation, which might have revealed that the agents to whom you and your agent spoke gave you incorrect information about the change fee. Most airlines record every conversation in their call centers, and can listen to what an agent said and then make a determination.

I contacted Continental on behalf of you and your travel agent. Your agent contacted you shortly after that, saying that Continental had reversed the charges.

(Photo: martin toy/Flickr Creative Commons)



We want your feedback.Your opinion is important to us. Here's how you can share your thoughts:
  • Send us a letter to the editor. We'll publish your most thoughtful missives in our daily newsletter or in an upcoming post.
  • Leave a message on one of our social networks. We have an active Facebook page, a LinkedIn presence and a Twitter account. Every story on this site is posted on those channels. The conversation ranges from completely unmoderated (Twitter) to moderated (Facebook and LinkedIn).
  • Post a question to our help forums or ask our advocates for a hand through our assistance intake form. Please note that our help forum is not a place for debate. It's there primarily to assist readers with a consumer problem.
  • If you have a news tip or want to report an error or omission, you can email the site publisher directly. You may also contact the post's author directly. Contact information is in the author tagline.