A single mix-up on an airline's part can cascade into a travel nightmare… (Richard Derk, Los Angeles…)
Sandy Valdivieso and her husband intended to fly from Los Angeles to Dakar, Senegal. They ended up almost 7,000 miles off-course in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
How something this bizarre could happen illustrates how a single mix-up on an airline's part can cascade into a travel nightmare of epic proportions.
It also highlights how customer service can be found lacking, particularly in light of the fact that Valdivieso spent months trying to secure some sort of compensation from the carrier, Turkish Airlines, but received nothing but runaround.
"I have called them every Friday for the past four months," said Valdivieso, 31, who works as an academic counselor at UCLA. "They told me each time that they will review my case and get back to me. But they never do."
Rick Seaney, co-founder of the travel website FareCompare.com, said he's heard horror stories about travelers messing up their itineraries, but never a situation in which an airline was responsible for sending passengers to the wrong side of the world.
"This is just brutal," he said. "A lot worse than losing your bag."
Actually, the airline did that too.
Valdivieso and her husband, Santa Monica martial arts instructor Triet Vo, 39, were heading to Africa because a former colleague of Valdivieso's had invited them to visit him in Senegal.
At the heart of the problem was a simple three-letter airport code, such as LAX for Los Angeles International Airport or SFO for San Francisco International Airport.
The code for the airport in Dakar, capital of Senegal, is DKR. The code for the airport in Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, is DAC.
For the geographically challenged, Dakar is the westernmost city on the African mainland. Dhaka is about 6,900 miles away in South Asia. They are on different continents.
When Valdivieso booked their December flight from Los Angeles to Dakar, via Istanbul, the $2,700 tickets issued by Turkish Airlines showed the itinerary as LAX-IST and then IST-DAC. The baggage-claim receipts showed their luggage was similarly bound for DAC.
Valdivieso and her husband are experienced travelers, but neither had ever been to Senegal or Bangladesh. They had no idea that DAC was for Dhaka, not Dakar.
The first leg of the journey went smoothly. The couple arrived in Istanbul jet-lagged but none the worse for wear. They had about four hours to kill at the Turkish airport. Then they boarded the flight for the second leg of the trip.
It's fair at this point to wonder why they were unable to spot that they were getting on the wrong plane. Valdivieso said that, in hindsight, they probably should have done more to make sure all was well.
"I guess we were just going by the flight number on our tickets, and that DAC was printed on them," she said. "You just assume that everything is correct."
Even after they'd settled into their seats — 33A and 33B in economy class — they had no idea anything was amiss.
"When the flight attendant said we were heading to Dhaka, we believed that this was how you pronounced 'Dakar' with a Turkish accent," Valdivieso said.
The couple quickly fell asleep. It wasn't until several hours later that they woke up and noticed the travel map on the overhead video screen showing the location of the plane. They were over the Middle East.
It was only then that Valdivieso and her husband looked around and realized that the plane was full of people who looked Asian, not African.
"That's when we knew a serious mistake had been made," she said.
Once on the ground in Bangladesh, it took about nine hours for the couple to remedy things with Turkish Airlines.
Officials with the carrier insisted that they had to track down and hear the recording of Valdivieso booking a trip to Senegal before they could acknowledge that the wrong airport code had been put on their tickets.
About 12 hours later, Turkish Airlines flew the pair back to Istanbul, where they caught a plane — the right one this time — for the six-hour trip to Dakar. There was no extra charge for the flight from Bangladesh.
The couple's bags didn't arrive in Senegal for two more days, but that seems almost trivial compared with the rest of the journey.
It was, all in all, a nightmare of a trip. So Valdivieso set about trying to get Turkish Airlines to compensate them in some way for all the hassle and inconvenience. After four months of being blown off by a series of service reps, she came to me.
Fatma Yuceler, general manager of Turkish Airlines' West Coast operations, acknowledged that the carrier screwed up in issuing tickets with the wrong airport code, then compounded the problem with insufficiently responsive customer service.
"We are very, very sorry that this happened," she said.
Yuceler said Turkish Airlines will make amends by offering Valdivieso and Vo two free economy-class tickets to anywhere the carrier flies. She also said the airline will share this incident with its employees to help improve service.
George Hobica, founder of the travel site Airfarewatchdog.com, said it's commendable that Turkish Airlines offered tickets to Valdivieso and Vo.
"But they could have done better after that much trouble," he said. "They could have refunded the original fares."
At the same time, Hobica said, Valdivieso and Vo bear partial responsibility for letting things get so out of hand.
"Travelers need to know their airport codes," he said. "You need to go on your smartphone and check that they're right."
That's easy to say, but how many people would actually do that? Moreover, who would really think to question a code on a ticket for DAC when flying to Dakar?
Well, Valdivieso, for one.
"From now on, I'll triple-check everything," she said.
David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.