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The ‘other guy’ effect

Years ago, I read a whodunit that, although eminently forgettable, created one unforgettable character. Whether dealing with fellow conspirators or the police, “Otherguy Overby” always found a way to blame someone else when a caper went amiss. Although the story had nothing to do with the travel industry, the “other guy” effect surely does. Whenever two or more companies are involved in a trip, and something goes wrong, each is quick to pile the blame elsewhere. A reader recently cited an example:

“We bought two international nonrefundable tickets to Brazil with US Airways and TAM through an online agency. Subsequently, US Airways cancelled the first flight of our itinerary. Since we wanted to change our flight dates anyway, I called the agency, and the agent said I could get a full refund because the first flight was cancelled and ‘you didn’t accept the change.’ He guaranteed that his agency would give the refund under those circumstances. So we cancelled and booked new tickets. After the prescribed three to four billing cycles on our credit card without the refund, the agency changed its story: TAM will not give the refund and the agency will not intercede for us. By the way, the agent who gave us that information is no longer employed there. We are out $2,500 over these tickets. Is this fair? Is there any recourse we can take?”

Short answers

  • What happened isn’t “fair,” but “fair” doesn’t count in these matters; what counts is what’s legal. And although I’m no lawyer, I believe that someone here is keeping your money illegally.
  • Given what you’ve already done, with no resolution, you’ll probably have to take the matter to court.
  • In view of the “other guy” effect, you might wind up taking all three principals to court.

In greater detail, here’s how I see the situation—as well as the more general problem that can arise with lots of other travelers, in lots of situations.

Other guy in Action

I’ve seen this dozens of times. When a connection between two airlines causes a severe itinerary glitch, each airline blames the other. When a travel agent’s flight arrangements are snarled, the agent blames the airline and the airline blames the agent. On something as simple as a damaged bag, the airline blames the TSA while the TSA blames the airline.

All too often, nobody accepts responsibility, and because the various principals are so intent on shifting the blame, finding a resolution is almost impossible. When the dollar amount is small, frustrated consumers frequently give up and accept a loss they really shouldn’t have to take.

Fixing the Blame

Sometimes, answering five questions can help you sort out—or at least prioritize—the blame among the principals to a dispute:

  1. Who took your money? In any transaction, the organization you paid should bear a significant share of the responsibility for fixing any problems that arise out of the transaction.
  2. Who issued the ticket? When you buy an airline ticket, you have a contract with that airline, and it bears responsibility for fulfillment of that contract, even if it involves other lines.
  3. Who caused the fundamental problem? If you can identify the principal that actually precipitated the problem, that entity certainly should answer to you.
  4. Who misinformed you? Clearly, if an employee of a principal gave you incorrect information, and you acted on it, that organization should stand behind its employee’s promises.
  5. Who wound up with the money? No matter what else, if you can determine which of the principals actually has your money, you need to go after that principal.

Often, the answers to those five questions will allow you to zero in on the one principal on which you should concentrate your efforts. In the reader’s case, however, each of the three principals is at least partially at fault. The online agency took the money and its representative provided misinformation. US Airways issued the ticket and it made the decision that precipitated the entire chain of events. And apparently TAM now has the money. It’s a classic other guy situation.

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