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Christopher Elliott: Airline stranded couple in Dallas

  • Published Sunday, Jan. 9, 2011, at 12:03 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Jan. 9, 2011, at 12:39 a.m.

The attendant said there were plenty of standby seats and gave us tickets to Dallas and then from Dallas to San Jose. He also told us, "If you don't get on, you just use your original tickets." That was our first mistake. I didn't process the fact that if we could not get on in Dallas, how could we take our original flights?

When we got to Dallas and tried to make the transfer, we were told that while there were empty seats on the plane and we were at the top of the standby list, the seats couldn't be filled because of a "weight restriction" on the flight.

The ticket agent told us that there was a flight to San Francisco leaving soon with 56 empty seats on it. We raced across the huge airport to the San Francisco flight, which was just boarding. We were then told at the gate that we couldn't make the switch, because our tickets were to San Jose.

Finally, we called for a supervisor. While he was pleasant, he reiterated the statement that we had to go to San Jose on our tickets. We could, however, get on the San Francisco flight for $780. The next day's flights were full, so we paid another $780 to get on the plane.

I am very upset that American Airlines took no responsibility for the errors on their side, and made no attempt to compromise in any way with us. What do you think?— Stewart Kiritz, Monterey, Calif.

A: I'd be very upset, too. An American Airlines representative dispatched you to Dallas with the understanding you'd be able to make a timely connection to a San Jose flight. But thanks to a series of misunderstandings, you found yourself with only one option: buying two new one-way tickets.

The agent in Nashville should have explained the risk you were taking by catching an earlier flight. At the very least, he should have ensured that your existing connection through Dallas wasn't canceled.

Escalating this issue to a supervisor was a terrific idea — it's always best to address a service problem immediately, if not with an agent then with a supervisor — but I think you were too easy on American. If a reasonable request like yours is denied (even politely), then you need to appeal your case. A phone call to American Airlines might have been helpful, and failing that an appeal to the supervisor's boss.

Presenting yourself at the gate can also be a powerful incentive to fix your problem. This is a trick used by hotel guests: When a reservation gets lost or something is wrong with your room, just mill around the lobby and make calls to the corporate 800-number, explaining your problem.

Fact is, American stranded you in Dallas. Then it asked you to pay for its mistake. And you did.

After you got home, you could have also sent a short, cordial e-mail to American, asking for a refund. I got involved in this case before you could do that, but it would have been a logical next step.

Next time you fly, make sure you're on a nonstop if you request this kind of schedule change. This kind of mistake is very rare, and airlines like American normally go to great lengths to ensure their passengers aren't stranded.

I contacted American on your behalf. The airline reviewed your case and found that there had been "an honest miscommunication" about what would happen if you stood by outside of your original routing.

American refunded your $780.

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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