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Things That Go 'Bump' on the Flight

April 27, 1989|DON G. CAMPBELL

Question: In an article a few weeks ago you discussed airlines and the problems with no-shows and overbooking. In this you stated that the airlines are required to compensate or offer a refund to a passenger who is involuntarily "bumped."

However, the question is: How do you force the airline to comply when all they do is give an apology for the inconvenience--E.Z.

Answer: Stephen Brobeck, executive director in Washington, D.C., for the Consumer Federation of America and co-author, with Jack Gillis, of CFA's "How to Fly" book, finds this a little baffling. Baffling because of all the reasons that flyers have for wanting to shred the airlines into little pieces, this is the one, normally, that is the easiest to resolve.

"Unless they've really overbooked the flight with a vengeance," Brobeck adds, "it's usually no problem to persuade enough people--with the lure of a free ticket--to voluntarily take a later flight and make room for the person being bumped. If this doesn't work, though, and they can't rebook the passenger on another flight to get him to his destination within an hour of the scheduled arrival of the original flight, then they, in addition to getting him to his destination, must either pay a penalty or refund the price of his ticket. I'm surprised at the arrogance this airline showed."

Because the refund/penalty business is a must , in other words, the airline can't get off the hook by simply kissing you off with an apology. Your first effort, Brobeck says, is to contact someone in management at the local level and lodge your complaint. This will work more often than we are inclined to think, because from time to time the people working the desk are slow in getting the word from management on what sorts of refunds are not negotiable.

Failing there, the second step is to contact the U.S. Department of Transportation's hot line, although unfortunately it's not a toll-free number: (202) 366-2220. They'll take your complaint over the phone, communicate it to the airline, and it will be included in the DOT's monthly complaint statistics. If that doesn't work, file a complaint with the California Department of Consumer Affairs, 1020 N St., Sacramento, Calif. 95814.

And, as a last resort, Brobeck advises taking it to small claims court. No lawyers are involved and because this is a matter of federal regulations, you've got a shoo-in case.

Incidentally, there are a couple of useful pamphlets summarizing air passengers' rights that you might want to keep on hand: "Fly-Rights: A Guide to Air Travel in the U.S.," no charge, from the Consumer Affairs Division, Room 10405, Intergovernmental and Consumer Affairs, U.S. Department of Transportation, 400 7th St. S.W., Washington, D.C. 20590. The other is "Facts and Advice for Airline Passengers," $2, Aviation Consumer Action Project, P.O. Box 19029, Washington, D.C. 20036..

Q: In a recent column, S.R. wrote that he is now retired and receiving Social Security, but still working part-time. He stated that in no way would his Social Security payments be increased in spite of paying FICA on his earnings. And you agreed with him, right?

You might be interested in knowing that I have been receiving Social Security for 11 years, working part-time, and each year I get an increase based on my earnings for the year. This is not the COL (cost of living) increase I am talking about. So, unless you know something I don't know, I think S.R. will be getting a nice surprise one of these days.--K.P.

A: You're dead right. I keep thinking in terms of 1989 contributions and wages and completely forgetting that the maximum one can earn this year ($8,800) without impacting his Social Security benefits is, relatively, a great deal of money, historically.

So, every year, every Social Security beneficiary has benefits recomputed (over the 28 years of highest earnings), and if the latest year is higher than the previous lowest year, the low year is knocked out of the calculations. And it wasn't until 1972 that total earnings for a full-time wage earner--on which both his contributions and benefits were based--got up as high as $9,000. Which means that, for virtually all beneficiaries today, those "best years" go clear back to 1960 or earlier.

And so his part-time 1989 earnings of $8,800 are computed into his benefits, and, we'll say, 1960s earnings are knocked out. Because the 1960 maximum was $4,800, his average jumps considerably.

Take a bow.

Campbell cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to consumer questions of general interest. Write to Consumer VIEWS, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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