Who is to blame?

Q: My parents live on a fixed income, social security of a mere $650 per month. They scrimped and saved to get enough money to purchase a round trip ticket via Priceline.com (as it was most economical) and got two tickets to Denver on American Airlines for roughly $250 each.

The airline told them they had to be at the airport to board at precisely 3 p.m., which they were. Then they sat on the tarmac until 5 p.m. My father is a diabetic, and they would not allow him anything to drink or eat during this waiting period.

Sadly, they were only there for five days – they were scheduled for three weeks – when my father became deathly ill and had to return home. His doctor was notified and was willing to write a letter saying that he had to return to Virginia. But American wouldn’t let them change their itinerary.

Nothing would be done, so they had to borrow the money to buy another ticket. They ended up paying another $250 each for this emergency trip.

Do you have any suggestions on what we could do to try to convince them to credit them another flight to Colorado or just to whom we should address a letter of complaint regarding their rudeness and lack of human compassion?

— Ronda Campbell

A: You can write letters until your fingers have turned blue. It’s not going to do you much good. Despite its self-righteous rhetoric, the airline industry generally goes out of its way to be as rude and insensitive as possible. Your parents were the unfortunate victims of its warped priorities.

But you already knew that. What you really want to know is, who’s responsible for this mess – Priceline or American Airlines?

As the ticket broker, Priceline simply sold your parents an American Airlines ticket. Its conditions are pretty straightforward: All tickets are round-trip and customers may receive flights that leave anytime between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. on their travel dates. Flights are also assigned by the airlines and can’t be changed. Tickets can’t be canceled, refunded or transferred to another person either.

American Airlines agreed to sell Priceline a discounted ticket under those conditions, but even if your parents had bought a ticket at a similar price directly from the carrier, it would have come with many restrictions. Changing flights, even when you’ve bought a ticket directly from an airline, invariably incurs a $75 change fee, if it’s allowed.

Neither American Airlines nor Priceline violated any of their written rules, but they did violate a few important unwritten ones:

– Leaving passengers on the tarmac for two hours violated the Northwest Airlines Rule: Never leave your passengers on the runway for more than one hour.

– Preventing your father, a diabetic, from eating, violates the Alaska Airlines Rule: Don’t be cruel to passengers, particularly those who are old, sick or disadvantaged. (See Cheap Charlie’s latest column for more on that.)

– Disallowing your parents to change their itineraries, even with a doctor’s note, goes against the Delta Air Lines Rule: Ticket agents shouldn’t be pigheaded.

– Not giving you any money back (or credit) is an infraction of the American Airlines Statute: Greed, to paraphrase Wall Street villain Gordon Gecko, is bad.

Sorry to say this, Ronda, but there’s very little we can do about it now. Next time, I’d recommend that your parents check online and then call a travel agent. If the agent comes within $50 of the price of the ticket, not only should they use the agent, but they should also consider buying trip insurance.

A good agent (if you can find one that still handles airline tickets) knows how to get around the constant roadblocks that get placed in a passenger’s way. And trip insurance is a nice safety net to fall back on.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on our help forum.

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