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Some Problems You Just Can’t Fix

A couple from Little Rock, Arkansas, suffered a trip that could serve as a demonstration program for Murphy’s Law. They’re out some $8,000; although not one of the several contributing problems was my readers’ fault, the net result is that they missed an expensive Alaskan cruise. And the worst part is that it looks like all they can recover is a small fraction of what they spent.

The couple bought an 11-day Alaska cruise, departing from Vancouver. The air transport from Little Rock to Vancouver was on United Airlines, with a connection in Houston. They even bought travel insurance that was “more comprehensive” than the cruise line’s regular policy.

On the scheduled departure day, they arrived at the Little Rock airport 95 minutes before scheduled departure—less than the “recommended” two hours but more than United’s official minimum time requirement of 30 minutes. Upon arrival, due to the “luck of the draw,” they were in a check-in line staffed by an agent they describe as “not proficient in the check-in process.” Although only one person was in line in front of them, United took up a full 45 minutes, even calling in a supervisor, to issue their boarding passes and checked baggage. Next came TSA screening and because one of the couple showed some medical devices, he was diverted for a full pat-down search, despite his claim that the X-ray clearly showed what the devices in question were. As a result of the cumulative delays, the couple arrived at the gate only five minutes before departure, instead of the required 15 minutes, and although the plane was still at the gate, the door was already closed and the gate agent would not board them. That agent attempted to rebook them on flights that would arrive in Vancouver in time to make the cruise departure, but seats were not available. The end result: no flight, no cruise.

This instance is an unfortunate example of the travel industry’s “other guy” approach: When something goes wrong involving more than one supplier, each blames the other and refuses to provide compensation.

  • United Airlines. According to the couple, United’s inexperienced counter agent was a major cause of the delay. United “apologized” for its part in the fiasco and offered to refund the air ticket (although the couple has not yet received the refund). But United’s official contract specifically denies liability for “consequent damages,” which means that even if the airline is responsible for missing a scheduled arrival, it bears no responsibility for any losses a passenger might incur due to the late arrival.
  • The Cruise Line. Normally, when passengers miss a cruise departure, cruise lines allow them to arrange replacement transport to the cruise’s first port of call, where they can join the ship for the remainder of the itinerary. In this case, however, the ports after Vancouver were in Alaska, and an archaic U.S. law says that a cruise line based outside the United States (as almost all are) and calling on U.S. ports cannot board travelers at a U.S. port. Had the cruise ship scheduled its first stop at Prince Rupert, the couple could have boarded there, but that wasn’t the case.
  • TSA. The agency refuses to cover financial consequences of any delays due to security screening. Period.
  • Travel Insurance. Even the most “comprehensive” travel insurance does not cover losses due to slow airport processing. Many policies cover travelers delayed by accidents on their way to the airport, but not if they’re at the airport and simply run out of time. So says John Cook of QuoteWright; he recommends that cruise passengers always arrange to arrive in their departure port the day before, just in case.

Clearly, this couple won’t collect any compensation from United, TSA, or the insurance policy. Their only hope is a possible future credit from the cruise line, with which they’re still negotiating. But beyond the somewhat obvious advice about leaving for a departure port a day early, the lesson here is simply that sometimes things go wrong and nobody can fix them. Depressing.

Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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