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Coping with a frequent flyer foul-up

Frequent flyer problems remain at or near the top of the list of complaints people have with airlines. The latest question here raises a really tough issue. “My brother and his wife booked a trip from the East Coast to Hawaii for January using US Airways miles. Today (late November), they got an itinerary change notification—their outgoing itinerary now requires a two-day layover in Phoenix, and their return flight is now two days later than the original flight. Are airlines allowed to change itineraries that drastically? And what recourse does a traveler have to get his original dates of travel back?”

The short answers are (1) no specific regulations or laws prevent airlines from doing pretty much what they want to do, and (2) recourse is problematic. Here’s my take on the situation.

Accommodate, concede, or fight?

The first question the travelers need to answer is whether they can accommodate to the new flights without undue difficulty or expense. If they can, their best bet is probably to go along with the change—fighting the airline on this one is likely to be difficult and the outcome uncertain. The extra costs of two nights in Phoenix will probably be less than any other loss that might grow out of this unfortunate situation.

If, however, the change means loss of prepaid accommodation payments, deposits, or cancellation penalties, or if the itinerary change is impractical because of vacation or work schedules, they face a second question: Try to undo the schedule change or cancel the trip, ask for a refund of the miles, and start over with new vacation plans? Or, as still another option, they could keep to their original destination arrangements but pay for seats on acceptable flights.

Unfortunately, whatever the travelers decide to do is likely to entail extra expense, and they have only a limited time available to do it. January is a busy month in Hawaii, and finding cheap seats and alternative accommodations could be tough.

Undoing the change

Clearly, the best outcome would be to get US Airways to provide an itinerary closer to the original. As a first step, the travelers should see if US Airways (or a partner line) still shows seats available for the original itinerary or something close. Then, they should call the airline’s frequent flyer program, and ask to speak to a supervisor or someone with the authority to rectify a major problem. This may or may not work, but it’s worth a try.

Unless they decide to accept the new itinerary, the travelers should try to determine the reason for the itinerary change. Was it the result of a schedule change that affected everyone on the original flights, or simply a callous act by the airline to sell seats it had previously promised as award seats? The answer to this question should have some effect on their ability to demand compensation.

Starting over

If US Airways can’t or won’t budge on the itinerary, and the new flights are unacceptable, the travelers should ask the airline to cancel their trip and redeposit their miles, without penalty or cost. The airline should be willing to do this.

Then, depending on their decision, they can either (1) ask the airline to rebook them for a future trip on an acceptable itinerary, (2) search for available flights they can buy, or (3) drop the entire idea of a Hawaii trip and head for a different destination.

Taking action

If US Airways refuses to provide a satisfactory resolution, or if the itinerary change results in added expenses, the travelers might decide to take action against the airline. I discussed the situation with a lawyer familiar with airline matters, and he recommends:

1. Send a complaint letter (not email) to the Department of Transportation Aviation Consumer Protection Division:

Aviation Consumer Protection Division, C-75
U.S. Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Ave, S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20590

Complaints can also be submitted online, but the lawyer recommends a letter. The DOT website provides guidelines about what to include in the letter.

2. Send a copy of the complaint, with a cover letter, to the airline’s general counsel:

General Counsel, US Airways
4000 E. Sky Harbor Blvd.
Phoenix, AZ 85034

The cover letter should clearly state exactly what the travelers would like the airline to do. If they have time available, they might ask the airline to reinstate the original itinerary. Otherwise, if the net result of the airline’s action is that they lose money, they should ask for full compensation. They should give a deadline for a response. And they should indicate that they intend to pursue the complaint, in court if necessary, if the airline does not provide an acceptable and timely solution.

Depending on the outcome of these steps—and if (as is likely) the airline stonewalls the complaint—they should consider action in small claims court. Here, the case will be stronger if the airline’s action was simply to free up seats for sale rather than a schedule change.

The travelers should keep in mind, however, that fighting an airline about a frequent flyer matter is an uphill battle that entails some risks:

  • The fine print in the frequent flyer agreement—which the travelers agreed to when they enrolled in the program—gives the airline almost carte blanche to do whatever it wants. Still, a promise is a promise, and a confirmed reservation is considered a contract.
  • The airline can even punish program members for “misuse” of the program by canceling all miles.

Airlines these days take a pretty cavalier attitude toward honoring frequent flyer program commitments. No matter what the travelers do, the outcome is likely to be less than satisfactory. That’s the sad but true situation. It cries out for some form of overall remedy—a class-action lawsuit, additional DOT requirements, or something. But don’t hold your breath until that happens. Instead, affected travelers should try to make the best of a bad situation.

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