In­con­ve­nienced by an air­line? Here’s how to get com­pen­sa­tion.

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - CHRISTO­PHER EL­LIOTT El­liott is a con­sumer ad­vo­cate, jour­nal­ist and co-founder of the ad­vo­cacy group Trav­el­ers United. Email him at chris@el­liott.org.

Some­times, air­lines do the right thing — no ques­tions asked.

Ger­rard Hat­tfield knows what that’s like. The en­trepreneur was fly­ing from Dur­ban, South Africa, back to his home in Cape Town when thun­der­storms de­layed his Mango Air­lines de­par­ture. Af­ter a two-hour wait, an air­line rep­re­sen­ta­tive ap­proached him and did some­thing that sur­prised him: She asked him if he was com­fort­able.

“Then she gave me a coupon to have a meal and two drinks at a restau­rant at the air­port,” he re­mem­bers.

The ex­pe­ri­ence changed the way Hat­tfield felt about Mango, a low-cost South African air­line. And that’s say­ing a lot. Among his projects is start­ing a search web­site called Flight Fac­tory, so he was not an easy con­ver­sion. But it also is in­struc­tive for those of us in the United States. Oc­ca­sion­ally, air­lines do right by their cus­tomers, although find­ing an ex­am­ple of an air­line that does the right thing with­out be­ing pushed, prod­ded or threat­ened is so rare that I had to look out­side the coun­try to find one.

Here’s why: Air­lines have writ­ten ticket con­tracts — in the in­dus­try they’re called con­tracts of car­riage — that let them off the hook for any­thing be­yond cir­cum­stances that they di­rectly con­trol. So if there’s air traf­fic or a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter or a weather de­lay, they aren’t ob­li­gated to com­pen­sate their pas­sen­gers.

At best, that means you’ll have to haul your lug­gage into the main ter­mi­nal and wait for the weather to clear while en­joy­ing over­priced air­port food. At worst, you could find your­self sleep­ing on the air­port floor.

But there are work­arounds. Sure, air­lines have poli­cies, but they don’t al­ways fol­low them. When a car­rier says a de­lay or can­cel­la­tion is caused by cir­cum­stances be­yond its con­trol, you can still ap­peal to gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions, em­pa­thy or its own cus­tom­erser­vice guar­an­tees to get it to do the right thing.

An air­line may not tell you ev­ery­thing when it comes to your rights — in­clud­ing the fact that you are pro­tected by gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions when you fly. For ex­am­ple, on cer­tain flights op­er­at­ing in Europe, a con­sumer pro­tec­tion rule called EU 261 ap­plies. The rule re­quires air­lines to com­pen­sate pas­sen­gers for any de­lays not caused by cir­cum­stances be­yond their con­trol, no mat­ter what their com­pany pol­icy. Euro­pean courts have adopted a tight def­i­ni­tion of what is and isn’t con­sid­ered be­yond an air­line’s con­trol, all of which means that if your next flight in Europe is de­layed, chances are the air­line owes you.

Do­mes­tic car­ri­ers can of­ten be held to the high stan­dards im­plicit in their own pro­mo­tional ma­te­rial. I’ve heard many ac­counts in which an air­line wasn’t tech­ni­cally re­quired to help a pas­sen­ger, but was gen­tly per­suaded by a pas­sen­ger who re­ferred to an ad­ver­tise­ment or to web­site lan­guage in which cus­tomer ser­vice was promised.

For ex­am­ple, Amer­i­can Air­lines promi­nently ad­ver­tises its mis­sion to give pas­sen­gers “the best travel ex­pe­ri­ence pos­si­ble” as be­fits “the great­est air­line in the world.” While such words are not a con­tract, they can be enough on which to hang a suc­cess­ful claim, even when there’s no con­trac­tual ba­sis for the com­plaint.

Of­ten, you can ap­peal to an air­line’s sense of de­cency. When Cessie Cer­rato re­cently flew from At­lanta to San Jose, Costa Rica, her flight was de­layed by what is com­monly re­ferred to as an “act of God” — in her case, a vol­canic erup­tion. Delta Air Lines fi­nally can­celed the flight. At the end of the day, she found her­self at the end of a line, wait­ing to be re­booked. She asked a rep­re­sen­ta­tive to help, and the air­line cov­ered an overnight stay in At­lanta even though it wasn’t re­quired to. When Cer­rato men­tioned that her lug­gage was al­ready checked, an agent went above and be­yond.

“They cov­ered the cost of our clothes and toi­letries,” Cer­rato says.

Cur­rent and for­mer air­line em­ploy­ees have told me that’s gen­er­ally how the sys­tem works. If they’re not re­quired to pro­vide meal vouch­ers or ho­tel ac­com­mo­da­tions, agents are in­structed to not of­fer any­thing. If asked, they con­sider a va­ri­ety of fac­tors, in­clud­ing the length of the de­lay, per­sonal cir­cum­stances (whether you’re trav­el­ing with young chil­dren or have a dis­abil­ity or a med­i­cal con­di­tion) and your air­line elite sta­tus. Con­nec­tions are also a fac­tor. If you’re fly­ing back to the United States and con­nect­ing through a hub, and there’s a weather de­lay, an air­line will prob­a­bly cover your overnight ac­com­mo­da­tions.

Put dif­fer­ently, a legacy car­rier would be re­luc­tant to let an elitelevel fre­quent flyer in a wheel­chair trav­el­ing in busi­ness class with a baby, whose con­nec­tion from Europe is de­layed in New York, sleep on the air­port floor. But an able­bod­ied non-elite pas­sen­ger making a con­nec­tion in, say, Salt Lake City, might end up roughing it on the floor in a snow de­lay. Fly­ing as a non­rev­enue pas­sen­ger or us­ing an award ticket might also af­fect your chances of get­ting com­pen­sa­tion. Of course, it could de­pend on the agent, the time of day and the length of the de­lay. Com­pen­sa­tion is more of an art than a sci­ence.

That’s what Ahmed Bhuiyan dis­cov­ered when he checked his new Mac­Book on a Delta Air Lines flight from Seat­tle to New York. When the bag ar­rived on the con­veyor belt at John F. Kennedy In­ter­na­tional Air­port, the com­puter was gone. Delta, like most other do­mes­tic air­lines, doesn’t cover elec­tron­ics checked in lug­gage.

Bhuiyan, who is the di­rec­tor of busi­ness devel­op­ment for Seat­tle-based Utrip, filed a claim with his credit-card com­pany, which cov­ers some lug­gage theft. He was turned down. “They more or less told me it was my fault for los­ing the lap­top,” he says. But Delta cov­ered his claim even though it wasn’t tech­ni­cally re­quired to do so. The rea­son: Bhuiyan was an up­per-level elite pas­sen­ger, the kind the air­line would be re­luc­tant to dis­ap­point. The air­line cut him a check for $1,100 — the full value of his com­puter.

The bot­tom line: If an air­line doesn’t do the right thing, there are ways to gen­tly nudge it. With a lit­tle pa­tience, po­lite­ness and per­sis­tence, you can both ar­rive at the same des­ti­na­tion.

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