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Using just half of a round-trip airline ticket can be costly

US Airways tells a passenger who wants to make just a single leg of his journey that he will have to pay a change fee as well as a higher fare for a new ticket.

January 11, 2011|David Lazarus
  • Passengers check in at the United and Continental airlines ticket counters at O'Hare International airport in Chicago.
Passengers check in at the United and Continental airlines ticket counters… (Frank Polich, Reuters )

Who owns an airline ticket — you or the airline?

That's the intriguing question Santa Monica resident Peter Szabo faced during the holidays when he attempted to use just half of a $435 round-trip ticket that he'd purchased three months earlier from US Airways.

The carrier said Szabo, 32, would need to pay hundreds of dollars more to make just a single leg of the journey.

"Basically, they wanted me to pay an additional $350 to use only half of what I already owned," Szabo told me. "I can't think of another scenario in another industry that would compare. If I buy two tickets to the symphony or a Clippers game but only use one, I don't incur an extra charge."

What it boils down to is whether an air traveler holds the right to travel on any portion of a pre-booked trip at prearranged prices, or whether any change to an itinerary allows the airline to issue a new ticket at a higher price.

"You might pay for the ticket, but nearly all airlines will argue that the ticket still belongs to them," said Christopher Elliott, the reader advocate for National Geographic Traveler magazine.

"It's ridiculous that they don't allow people to use their tickets as they want," he said. "But if an airline thinks it can get more money from you, it will."

Elliott said the fine print of most airline tickets makes clear that every leg of a trip must be made as planned. If you miss the first leg, say, the entire trip can be canceled.

"This is something that has bedeviled travelers for many years," Elliott said.

In Szabo's case, he plunked down $435 in September to book a Dec. 22 flight from Los Angeles to Boston, and then on Dec. 27 from Philadelphia back to L.A. He and his fiancee planned to make a road trip from Boston to Philly in between.

Meanwhile, Szabo landed a new job with a company that makes smart phone music apps. The company, Shazam, said it would fly Szabo to New York for meetings before Christmas and then get him to Boston for the holiday.

While in Boston, Szabo called US Airways to cancel his original flight from Los Angeles. He was prepared to forfeit that part of his ticket.

But a service representative for the carrier said he couldn't just fly from Philadelphia to L.A. as planned. If Szabo missed the first leg of the trip, he'd have to buy a new one-way ticket to L.A. This would entail a $150 ticket-change fee, plus the higher fare for a new ticket on a peak travel day.

"It's completely illogical," Szabo said. "I already owned this ticket. But no matter how many times I tried to explain this to them, they kept telling me that this was their policy."

No one at US Airways returned repeated calls for comment.

In effect, the airline was saying that the only way Szabo could maintain his already purchased flight from Philadelphia to Los Angeles would be to get back to L.A. and then make the original flight to Boston as planned.

To illustrate the lunacy of the airline's position, Szabo went online and priced the cost of a flight from Boston to Los Angeles. Virgin America had one for about $250.

So Szabo's cheapest alternative was to fly from Boston to L.A. on Virgin and then turn around and fly US Airways right back to Boston. Then he'd be able to drive to Philadelphia as intended and fly back to L.A.

This would cost about $685 for no fewer than three cross-country flights, as opposed to the nearly $800 US Airways wanted to charge for a one-way ticket.

"I had to plead with US Airways to acknowledge how preposterous this was," Szabo said. "They finally agreed to waive the $150 change fee and to apply a portion of my original ticket to my new ticket."

In the end, he managed to fly home from Philly for about $535, or $100 more than the cost of his original ticket, which involved twice as much travel.

Is there a lesson to all this?

"Yes," Szabo said. "You should stick with the companies that treat you best."

So does that mean he'll be flying again with US Airways?

"Not if I can avoid it."

Power play

Southern California Edison customers received a notice the other day outlining the reasons for a proposed 7.5% rate increase for 2012. It included the usual explanations involving system improvements and technical upgrades.

And then came this eye-opening nugget:

A rate hike is needed "to make a substantial contribution to the employee and retiree pension fund to address the losses in financial markets over the past few years."

Huh?

While it's nice that Edison employees and retirees will have their pension fund intact, since when is it the responsibility of ratepayers to make good for a utility's bad investments?

Most people's 401(k) retirement accounts took a pounding in recent years. I don't see anyone stepping in to cover those losses.

Russ Worden, Edison's director of regulatory affairs, told me the company's pension fund is part of its overall compensation program. "It's what we use to attract and retain employees," he said.

Be that as it may, should ratepayers be responsible for compensating Edison for losses suffered in the stock market? Isn't that asking customers to go above and beyond the call of duty?

"We view it differently," Worden replied.

I'll bet they do.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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