Flying Unfriendly Skies

One of my sons plans to attend a sports-related camp on the East Coast next week and, based on plans a friend of mine forwarded (her entire family is making the camp part of an extended vacation), I booked him in and out of Baltimore Airport.

I noted that I could book a shuttle bus ($137 each way) from the airport to the camp, which is about 45 minutes away.

Some time later, I learned that many of the players are flying in and out of Philadelphia, and will travel together – with some coaches – to the camp.  Fortunately, my son was already booked through Philadelphia (connecting there to a smaller plane for Baltimore), so I thought it would be easy to make the change.

I knew that if my son just skipped the connecting flight instead of canceling it, his entire return ticket would be voided, so I tried to make the change officially.

First, I called the “third-party” travel firm through which I had booked the flight. The customer service representative was most certainly sitting thousands of miles away from U.S. shores, and had trouble understanding that I simply wanted to cancel the connecting flight. After my third unsuccessful attempt at explaining that, I ended the call.

Next, I called the airline directly, and that proved even more frustrating.

Here’s what I learned: Although my son had a flight booked to Philadelphia and a seat on that flight, to change his itinerary – and have him stop in Philly instead of continuing on to Baltimore – the airline would need to book an entirely new flight. That “new” itinerary would be charged at the current rate (for me, a last-minute, less-than-two-week’s-notice fare). In effect, to keep the same first flight and free up the second, which the airline could then re-sell at a higher rate, I would be charged a whopping $568 – in addition to the $650 I had already paid.

I said I was willing to pay the $150 change fee, but couldn’t understand why I was charged so much extra to keep a ticket I already possessed.

Well, the agent explained, the original itinerary was for Baltimore, not for Philly, and that was charged at the market rate. On the day I booked the flight, the price to Philly may have been higher (although certainly not $568 more), so it would be wrong to let my son disembark in Philly for the Baltimore price.

Okay, I understand that rules are rules, and airline personnel are instructed to follow the book. However, I do believe that some rules are absolute hog-wash and should be circumvented.

I knew better than to spend time arguing with the first agent, who was certainly powerless, so I asked for his supervisor, and eventually that person’s supervisor.  To their credit, all three agents knew the rules well and would not budge.

The second supervisor explained that a “new” ticket had to be booked on the day of that call, at that day’s rate. As she explained: “If another customer called and booked today at the higher rate, and then found out that you got the flight for less, they would sue us.”

“But I’m not booking a new flight,” I argued. “My son already has a seat on the flight I originally booked.” And on and on.

The conversation continued in that fashion, with the customer service representative repeating the rules as written, and me trying to point out how ludicrous the rules were. Clearly, I was getting nowhere.

So, I made one final pitch—a Hail Mary, if you will: “Surely, as a consumer, you can see that it’s crazy to charge me $568 more to keep a flight I have already booked, especially when the airline can make additional money re-selling the flight segment I am dropping. Don’t you see that I am getting a raw deal at both ends? Don’t you have the power to make any adjustments in that price?”

The agent replied, “I’ve been doing this job for 18 years, and I have never been able to make exceptions.”

And that’s when I lost it, and my not-so-stellar “mommy moment” occurred: “How sad is that?” I asked. “You’ve been doing this job for 18 years, and you have no power to actually help consumers?  You know you are taking advantage of your customers. How can you get up in the morning and look yourself in the mirror, and day after day return to a job like that?”

I thanked her for her time, and hung up, with steam still coming out of my ears. And that’s when I realized that I had an audience in my household: my 12-year-old daughter was sitting outside my office door, concerned about the call, and my 15-year-old son and his friend (whose mom is a retired flight attendant) could hear me from the kitchen.

So, I had some explaining to do. But in the end, I gave my kids – and myself – permission to fight for what they believe in, and to take a stand when they feel they are being wronged. Okay, I was trying to bend some well-established airline rules, and I learned that they were actually set in stone. At least I tried. And I hope that my kids will have the courage to take on their own battles – albeit with a little more honey and a lot less vinegar.

 – Linda Williams Rorem, 20 July, 2012
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  1. How frustrating! And it’s true that everyone pays different rate all the time!

  2. Customer Service is an oxymoron with most airlines (typed as I head to the airport in 30 minutes)

  3. The idea that someone would sue the airlines because you had a different rate is hogwash! Everyone on a plane pays a different rate depending on when and how they bought their ticket, and from whom.

    • I agree, Andrea. While I was on the phone, I remembered someone telling me, “It’s impossible to have a reasonable conversation with an unreasonable person.” So frustrating!

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