U.S. Airways stops pretending to care about its customers

(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.

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18 Responses to “U.S. Airways stops pretending to care about its customers”

  1. Kelly Skeels says:

    Here is my nightmare.

    Dear Mr Parker,

    I wanted to relay to you a story on how we were treated by your airline. We had obtained a flight from Kansas City to Richmond Virginia to attend my wife’s mothers funeral. We purchased tickets for my wife, myself, and our two sons. The tickets cost $5084.00.

    We had minor car trouble and arrived 20 min prior to departure, had all carry on bags. The plane was still at the gate yet the door was closed. The gate agent was rude, vile and uncaring. We explained we were on our way to a funeral. The agent refused to let us board the plane and joked we should have left sooner. We were forced to drive 15 hours in a small car.

    In calling your airline for a refund once again we were treated rudely and told the tickets were non refundable. So in effect we paid $5084.00 for nothing plus the almost $500.00 in gas and a grueling road trip. We even offered to provide a death certificate.

    My wife, devastated by the loss of her mother already, then takes a kick in the stomach from your airline. we are very disappointing by this whole ordeal, and I believe you would not condone this sort of callous uncaring treatment by your airline.

    I hope this email reaches you, (I doubt it will). But I would ask you to remedy this situation. we are prepared to take this to the major news outlets if this is not remedied.

    Thank you.

    This was followed by a letter from a customer service lackey that said basically tough beans.

  2. jik says:

    I got an email message recently from someone who asked me to post their US Airways story here. So here goes (remember, I’m quoting someone else here; this didn’t happen to my wife and me!):

    My wife planned a trip from Honolulu to Boston for a job interview, she planned her trip during a certain time because we are trying to get pregnant and she is going through fertility treatments. Unfortunetly in order to correctly time the fertility treatments her doctor gave her an appointment that is the same day that she returns from her trip. Due to the time she lands she would not be able to make the appointment. My wife called US Airways and spoke with three supervisors, two of them being women, and explained her situation. She told them that we have been trying to get pregant for a a year and a half and this fertility treatment has to be timed correctly. She asked if for this circumstance that they would waive the flight change fee because we don’t have the extra money. All three supervisors responded the same way, “No, it will still be $175.”

    I plan on writing a letter today to US Airways as well as Avation Consumer Protection, although after reading your blog I am sure nothing will be done. It’s probably for my own piece of mind more than anything else.

  3. [...] U.S. Airways stops pretending to care about its customers [...]

  4. dave Greenbaum says:

    Jon,

    You should post this to http://www.consumerist.com They LOVE stuff like this and always get action

  5. [...] I told the agent my story and asked, once again, for a reduction or waiver of the ticket change [...]

  6. Greg says:

    This thread contains an address and phone number (and a link to the DOT web site where you can send complaints)

    http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/us-airways-dividend-miles/859119-i-hear-nothing-us-airways.html

  7. [...] Something better to do Musings of an indignant mind « U.S. Airways stops pretending to care about its customers [...]

  8. jik says:

    The thing about this I really don’t get is that these airlines are in competition with the likes of Easyjet and Ryanair (whatever the equivalents are in the US). Being able to outplay them in circumstances like this is the only thing that distinguishes a full-service airline. If they try to play the discount airline game with inflexible terms and bare-bones service they’re guaranteed to lose.

    Hah! Things are backward in the U.S. In my experience, the small and/or discount airlines tend to have far more reasonable terms. For example, Southwest Airlines doesn’t charge anything for ticket changes. Other airlines with lower change fees (at least according to http://rickseaney.com/domestic-airline-fee-chart-2/) include AirTran, Alaska, Spirit, Go, ExpressJet, Virgin America, Allegiant, and Sun Country.

  9. Greg says:

    “Perhaps I’m remembering wrong, but I seem to recall a time when kids could, in fact, take flights with connections, and a representative of the airline would escort them between their flights. Yet another deterioration of service on American airlines, I suppose.”

    Uhm, yeah. What’s the point of having an “UM” status at all if it’s for a flight with no connections?! What do they do, help them get their bags? I recall flying when I was about 15 including a connection in Chicago. (And it was Canada->US too).

  10. jik says:

    Have you considered contacting local press as well?

    Oh, don’t worry, I’m planning on making a riotously big fuss about this. I just fired a shot across the bow: a letter to the U.S. Airways customer relations department’s fax number; I’ll post the letter in a separate blog posting. I’m now waiting on hold to speak to a customer service representative in person to alert him/her to the fax and warn that I expect a response today.

  11. jik says:

    Also, you may have already thought of this but were the tickets purchased on a gold credit card? You may have travel insurance included which would pay for the changes.

    I hadn’t thought of it, but I just called the credit card company and checked, and there’s no such insurance, unfortunately.

  12. Greg says:

    The thing about this I really don’t get is that these airlines are in competition with the likes of Easyjet and Ryanair (whatever the equivalents are in the US). Being able to outplay them in circumstances like this is the only thing that distinguishes a full-service airline. If they try to play the discount airline game with inflexible terms and bare-bones service they’re guaranteed to lose.

    I would forward your article to the office of the president of the airline. These things are best dealt with from the top-down rather than trying to bubble them up from the bottom.

    Incidentally it may be worth getting a doctor to see your wife before she gets better (hopefully soon, it sounds awful) and keep all your receipts.

  13. jik says:

    Also, uh, how old are your kids? Airlines have policies about the ratio of adults to young children and one adult for five children may have been in violation of these policies anyways. Unless they’re not so young? Perhaps you could have sent the older kids home on their own — possibly even paying an UM fee for the younger amongst them and only paid the ransom for any infants? I wonder if they had the power to waive the UM fee actually.

    If we were in violation of their policies, nobody said anything when we booked the trip or when I called to add our son to the reservation as a lap baby, and they knew the ages (I provided their ages when making the reservation).

    I thought of having the older kids fly as unaccompanied minors. According to the agents at the airport, three of them are old enough, but they don’t allow unaccompanied minors to fly on flights with connections, and our tickets have a connection in Charlotte. I also tried to arrange to have the three older kids fly to Charlotte and I would meet them there for the rest of the trip, and the cost of doing that was almost $900.

    And no, no one at the airport when we were discussing this ever offered to waive the unaccompanied minor fee.

    Perhaps I’m remembering wrong, but I seem to recall a time when kids could, in fact, take flights with connections, and a representative of the airline would escort them between their flights. Yet another deterioration of service on American airlines, I suppose.

  14. Greg says:

    Also, you may have already thought of this but were the tickets purchased on a gold credit card? You may have travel insurance included which would pay for the changes.

  15. Greg says:

    Also, uh, how old are your kids? Airlines have policies about the ratio of adults to young children and one adult for five children may have been in violation of these policies anyways. Unless they’re not so young? Perhaps you could have sent the older kids home on their own — possibly even paying an UM fee for the younger amongst them and only paid the ransom for any infants? I wonder if they had the power to waive the UM fee actually.

  16. jik says:

    There’s something missing here…

    I suppose you’re right that it’s a bit unclear. Let me try to explain a bit better. If I flew down there today and brought the kids back on a late flight, then the cost of my ticket would be about $600, and I supposedly wouldn’t have to pay to rebook the kids’ tickets. On the other hand, the cost of paying to change all of my kids’ tickets to fly back tomorrow, which aside from the money would be a far preferable arrangement, is also $600. It therefore makes no sense for me to pay $600 to fly down their today and bring the kids back on a late flight.

  17. Wow. Just wow.

    Have you considered contacting local press as well?

  18. Greg says:

    “apparently not incurring the fee for a same-day change… the cost of my round-trip ticket was the same as the cost of changing all the kids’ tickets to fly tomorrow.”

    There’s something missing here…

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