(Follow the whole story at http://blog.kamens.brookline.ma.us/tag/trapped-in-georgia/.)
There’s an old Dilbert strip where the boss makes his disdain for his employees so clear that Dilbert blurts out, “Good Lord! You’ve stopped even pretending to be on our side!” This is what came to mind to me today when I realized that U.S. Airways has stopped even pretending to care about their customers.
My wife and our five children are in Georgia. On the flight there, she suffered all of the little indignities which the airlines have invented to torture us: a fee for checked bags (thus making security and boarding take longer as people try to cram all of their things into carry-ons), no free snacks (so you have to find room in your carry-ons for food too), a $2 charge for drinks (particularly outrageous since beverages can’t be brought through security and since it’s actually unhealthy not to drink while flying), and even a charge for pillows and blankets. My wife grumbled, but she tolerated it; with most of the airlines engaging in similar acts of highway robbery, what choice did she have?
But, as the saying goes, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” My wife was scheduled to fly home with the kids today. Unfortunately, at 3:30 this morning, she called and informed me that she had caught the stomach flu running rampant in Virginia (“Noroviruses, which cause acute gastroenteritis or “stomach flu,” appear to be on the upswing in Virginia,” according to the Virginia Department of Health, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that the flu is currently “widespread” in Virginia) and had spent the last several hours in the bathroom experiencing all of the symptoms commonly associated with the illness (again according to the VA DOH, “nausea, vomiting, watery non-bloody diarrhea, stomach cramps, and low-grade fever”). Her host in Virginia, a nurse, had gotten it several days before, so we knew what it was; we also knew that in her condition, there was no way my wife would be able to handle the two-hour drive to the airport or a four-hour airplane trip, including a change of planes, with five young children. Not to mention the fact that if she did take the trip, she would expose every passenger on both flights to the virus.
Armed with this information, I called the U.S. Airways reservations line and asked how to receive a medical waiver of the $150 per ticket ($750 total, for tickets that originally cost a little under $2,000) change fee. The reservations agent informed me that no such waivers were available. I asked whether there was anyone there with the authority to say otherwise, and the agent said that she could transfer me to her supervisor if I wished, but the supervisor would probably give me the same answer.
Thinking that perhaps talking to someone in person would produce better results, I threw on my clothes and hurried over to the airport. The agents and “station chief” with whom I spoke there were very friendly, but the end result was the same — no one had the authority to reduce or waive the ticket change fee, and they didn’t know of anyone who did. The best they could do was to suggest that the kids all be moved to a later flight the same day (apparently not incurring the fee for a same-day change), and I hop onto a plane and fly down there to take them home, leaving my wife fly back when she feels better. This, however, was no help, because the cost of my round-trip ticket was the same as the cost of changing all the kids’ tickets to fly tomorrow.
I left the airport having accomplished nothing except to acquire a slip of paper with the contact information for the U.S. Airways customer relations department.
At 9:00am, when the they opened, I called them and told my story for the fourth time. The agent transferred me to a supervisor, to whom I told the story a fifth time, and I received the same answer.
Every agent and supervisor informed me that U.S. Airways “had no choice” about charging me the fee because those were the terms of the tickets we purchased. When I pointed out that those “terms” were written by U.S. Airways and could therefore be changed by U.S. Airways, they had no response.
When an airline cancels a flight for whatever reason, do they pay every passenger $150? No, they most certainly do not, and yet these same airlines, which have been coddled by the U.S. government for years, to the point where they know they can get away with anything, think that it’s OK to charge passengers $150 per ticket for circumstances which are just as outside of their control as a sick pilot, a broken-down plane or a winter snowstorm.
But the $750 in ransom I’m going to end up having to pay to get my family home from Georgia is hardly the worst of it. As I noted above, what the airline apparently wanted my wife to do was to go to the airport today, get on their planes, and expose thousands of passengers, traveling all over the country, to an extremely nasty flu virus that can actually kill people. My wife made the responsible decision not to do that, despite the fact that we will pay for that decision with money we don’t have. How many people don’t make that same decision? How many people fly sick because they can’t afford not to? How many days of worker productivity are lost because people become ill as a result of being exposed to illnesses on airplanes? How much real human suffering is a direct result of U.S. Airways’ misguided policies? How many people have died as a result of them?
“Good Lord! You’ve stopped even pretending to be on our side!” Indeed.