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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Airline crawls when it comes to refunds


The original booking for my family had a 50-euro change fee per ticket, plus any fare differential. Every time we called to get a fare quote, we got a slightly different price.

Unfortunately, my sister and I got our wires crossed. She had received a call directly from the airline in Spain, where she lives, but there was no indication that the change by my sister had been done while I was on the phone here, making the same change at the same time. She was charged about 200 euros, and I was charged $331 US. My change "overrode" her change in Spain.

We immediately called British Airways when I discovered what had happened, and they requested I send a fax to their refunds department in New York, which I did immediately. They contacted us almost two weeks later to say this had to be sent on to France. We have now sent several additional letters to the U.S. refunds office as well as the address they gave us in France, and we even tried sending a letter to the main office in England, but we are still waiting to hear from them. Is there anything you can do?— Janice Sinclair, Minneapolis

A: How odd. A careful reservations agent should have caught this, but more importantly, there should have been safeguards in the system to stop this kind of double change from being authorized.

But let's take a step back. Even though British Airways ought to have known that two different people were making an identical change to a reservation, it's also true that if you and your sister had agreed to consult each other before phoning the airline, none of this would have happened.

Technically, British Airways was correct to bill you twice. You called the airline and wanted to make a change to a ticket, and agreed to the price.

But that doesn't mean it was right to keep your money. As soon as you brought this to the airline's attention, it should have credited you. As far as I'm concerned, this was a double-billing.

In my experience, British Airways is among the slowest (if not the slowest) of the major airlines when it comes to refunds. It's as if the money only goes one way — theirs. So I'm not surprised to hear that you've endured a long wait.

Is there a way to prod the airline into a faster refund? Perhaps. A phone call doesn't seem to work, otherwise you wouldn't be writing me. A fax? No. An e-mail? That depends. I list a few names on my website that, if contacted, might motivate British Airways to move a little faster (www.elliott.org/help/british-airways/) but I make no guarantees. This airline crawls at its own pace when it comes to refunds.

How about a credit card dispute? That might have just complicated things, particularly since both you and your sister agreed to the change fee. This kind of dispute wouldn't be as cut-and-dried as a conventional double-billing.

I contacted British Airways on your behalf, and it credited you $331.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org, or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

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