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On the Spot: Flight changes, unhappy customer speaks up

Once booked, a flight is changed to include a layover and increased travel time. The inconvenienced customer becomes her own best advocate.

March 25, 2012|By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times
  • A United Airlines plane at LAX.
A United Airlines plane at LAX. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

Question: On Jan. 17 I booked four round-trip, nonstop tickets on United to take my 80-year-old mother and my two children to Philadelphia to visit family. I was recently notified by email that our flights had been changed to include a stop, a change of planes and several hours of increased travel time on both legs of the trip. I called United and was given the option of a refund or of flying on United with the new flight and a $75 travel voucher. Neither of these solutions is acceptable. I booked United because the ticket was about $220 less than US Airways, another option. Buying new tickets will cost me about $900 more. I asked United to arrange for me to fly on US Airways. Is that possible?

Lesley Lasker

Encino

Answer: Here's the end of the story first: Lasker is flying on US Airways for about the same money as her United tickets would have cost. And the credit for this near-miraculous feat goes to Lasker.

When I asked United if this request was possible, the answer was a short but not unkind no. I can see why United would not want to set such precedent.

I also know, having flown with an elderly parent, that you need to control all the stresses you can, and one way is a nonstop flight on a schedule that closely coincides with the parent's schedule. This situation might be a bit like ordering chicken at a restaurant — you could have had steak but didn't because of the cost — and being told yes, that's what we'll give you, then no, you're having meatloaf and you better like it, and no, we won't pay for you to have steak; why should we? I share Lasker's unhappiness about the change, whether plane tickets or plates of food.

The amazing thing is that United offered Lasker a refund. This is, of course, the right thing to do, but that doesn't always happen in the airline industry — or any industry — unless you're an elite customer. Lasker confirmed that she doesn't hold premier status on United.

"She's not an elite traveler and … she got a heckuva deal as far as I'm concerned," said Andrew R. Thomas, an assistant professor of international business at the University of Akron in Ohio and the author of 15 books, including "Soft Landing: Airline Industry Strategy, Service, and Safety."

He said that because many companies have dropped the notion (if, indeed, they ever had it) that all customers should be treated equally well. Many now use a variation on that theme: All customers should be treated well but not equally.

Thomas said he sees this with his hotel rewards program. Someone who has bought a room inexpensively on Priceline isn't going to be treated badly at the hotel. But, Thomas noted, with elite status, "They're going to treat me very well. … They're going to give me free upgrades. They smile at me; they're nicer. I'm like part of the family; I'm part of the club.

"It's a cold calculus," he said, adding: "I think that's just the reality of business today."

Given that fresh new hell, both Thomas and I were amazed at Lasker's ability to get the refund. (She said she was a "really good yeller.")

If that's not enough of a miracle for you, consider that she found tickets on US Airways that were less than what they would have been at the time she bought her United tickets.

"With rising fuel costs, capacity cuts (which is, in economics, logical with increasing costs), higher gasoline prices and a temporarily improving economy, fares can only continue to increase." George Hoffer, an economics professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, told me in an email. "Thus, an early purchase is generally wise.

"The downside to an early purchase is what we see here: a schedule tweak which the airline considers minor becomes a major problem for the traveler."

Lasker took matters into her own hands. She checked the US Airways website "daily, sometimes hourly," she said, until she found the fare she wanted.

She defied the odds not once but twice and, in so doing, provided an important lesson for leisure travelers: You may not be an elite or a diamond or a platinum or whatever precious gem or metal the travel provider has ascribed to its best customers, but you do deserve to get what you pay for. She was, in the end, her own best advocate.

It takes lots of work and plenty of grit to be a leisure traveler. There's no hot line number to call to solve your problems. There's no one waiting, as Thomas said, "with that cup of Champagne." That's OK too. Buy your own Champagne, and toast yourself for your loyalty, not to a program but to your desire to see the world. On your terms.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.

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