(Follow the whole story at http://blog.kamens.brookline.ma.us/tag/trapped-in-georgia/.)
(If you’re trying to find out how to complain to US Airways, see this posting.)
March 10, 2009
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
111 West Rio Salado Parkway
Tempe, AZ 85281
Dear Mr. Parker,
I am writing about the outrageous experience which has prompted my wife and I to decide that we will never willingly fly on US Airways again. I will also tell you about my efforts to share our experience with as many people as possible and to urge our elected representatives to take action to make what happened to us a thing of the past.
At 3:30am on February 23, the day my wife and our five children were scheduled to return to Boston from a trip to Georgia, I was woken by a panicked phone call: “I’ve got the stomach flu. I’ve been throwing up for hours and I can barely walk. There’s no way I’m going to be able to fly today. I need you to change our flight.”
I immediately called US Airways and asked to move the tickets a day later. I was told that it would cost $1,250 ($750 in change fees and $100 per ticket because the new flight was more expensive under the arcane, incomprehensible, rigged pricing system your airline uses). This was well over half the original cost of the trip. Incredulously, I asked, “Surely you must have a policy for waiving the charge for changes due to sudden, serious, contagious illness?” No, I was informed, there is no such policy.
Thinking that perhaps I would have more success in person, I rushed to Logan airport and repeated my request at the US Airways ticket counter. The people there were unfailingly polite and tried their best to be helpful, but on one point they were unwavering: they could not waive the charges. I left the airport with nothing but a slip of paper showing how to contact your customer relations department, which was pretty much useless because it doesn’t open until 9:00am, by which time my wife would have had to leave for the airport, a two-hour drive from where she was staying.
I called my wife and listened to her sob hysterically as she realized that she was being forced to choose between risking her health and her children’s safety and spreading a dangerous virus, or spending a great deal of money we did not have to postpone her travel.
In fact, there was no choice, because her host, an experienced nurse who had been struck by the same virus herself a few days before, said that she couldn’t possibly fly in her condition and refused to drive her to the airport.
I proceeded to spend pretty much the entire day fighting the US Airways bureaucracy in an effort to get my wife’s tickets changed for less than $1,250. Let me tell you about that hellish experience.
The slip of paper I got at the airport had two telephone numbers on it. When I called the first number, 866-523-5333, a recording informed me that I should contact you through your Web site to receive a response within a few days, which of course was entirely useless for getting help with an urgent issue. Then I was hung up on.
When I called the second number, 480-693-6719, a recording said I had dialed an invalid extension. Yes, that’s right, one of the phone numbers given to me by US Airways employees at the airport was simply wrong.
I then wrote a letter summarizing our situation and sent it to the fax number on the slip of paper, 480-693-2305. I doubt it will surprise you to hear that no one ever responded to that letter.
After that, I decided to call back the first number again. I’m not sure why I thought I’d get a different result the second time, since there was nothing in the recording to suggest that. But it’s a good thing I did, because this time, rather than being told to go away, I was put into a queue, where I waited for almost two hours before being connected to a customer relations representative.
I told her my story, and once again, I was informed that the terms and conditions of our tickets did not include a waiver for medical emergencies and therefore the fees could not be waived.
Up to now, I had been nothing but polite to all of the US Airways employees with whom I had dealt. I acknowledged, to each employee, that I understood that the airline’s policy was not under his/her control. In each encounter, I politely asked if there was someone else to whom I could speak who might be able to override the policy.
I’m sorry to say that my politeness ran out during this call. I lost my temper. I yelled. I berated the agent for yet again mouthing the platitudes about “terms and conditions” and “airline policies,” when she knew as well as I did that the terms, conditions and policies were created by the airline and the airline could change them on a whim. I listed all of the people and media outlets to whom I was going to complain if the airline didn’t solve the problem. I pointed out how absurd it was that the airline gives passengers nothing when it has to cancel flights due to circumstances (supposedly) beyond its control but then expects passengers to pay an exorbitant fee when they cannot fly due to circumstances beyond their control. I told her that it was simply reprehensible that the airline expected my wife, who spent the night alternating between lying on the bathroom floor, vomiting, and having diarrhea, to get on a plane with her five children a few hours later. I pointed out how outrageous it was that the airline preferred for my wife to expose many people at the airport and everyone on both of her flights to a serious, potentially lethal virus, rather than letting her and her family fly the next day.
She told me to calm down, put me on hold for a few minutes, and then came back and claimed that if I faxed them a letter from a doctor that my wife was unable to fly this morning, they would waive the fees. She told me to fax the letter to 480-690-2300.
I got such a letter from the nurse who cared for my wife during her illness and refused to let her get on the plane. She went to a great deal of effort to produce the letter, since she had taken the day off to care for my wife and had to drive in to work to get hospital letterhead on which to write. But she got it, and she faxed it to me, and at around 3:00pm Eastern time, I started trying to fax it to US Airways.
I say “started trying” because, although I repeatedly tried faxing the letter to 480-690-2300 for five hours, I was never able to transmit it successfully. Most of my attempts before 7:00pm failed because the line was busy. A few attempts failed because there was no answer. And a very small number of attempts failed because the fax machine on the other end hung up in the middle of the first page of the fax.
Thinking that there might perhaps be a problem with my fax machine, I also made many attempts to send the fax from my company’s eFax account. These attempts also failed.
At around 4:00pm, I called your customer relations department again in a desperate attempt to find out what to do about the fact that I had been told to provide you with this letter but was unable to do so. I waited for around 40 minutes before being connected to an agent, who informed me that there was absolutely nothing he could do. There was no email address to which I could send the letter that would be read quickly; there was no other fax machine to which I could send it; there was no way he could get in touch with the agent with whom I’d spoken before to make alternate arrangements. That part of our exchange is so astounding that it bears repeating (emphasis added):
ME: “Can you look up the name of the agent I spoke with before and speak to her about this to try to figure out a solution?”
HIM: “No, I’m sorry, there are so many people here that I probably wouldn’t be able to find her.”
ME: “Well, don’t you have a telephone directory? Can’t you call her extension?”
HIM: “No, we’re not allowed to make outgoing calls to other people in our department.“
At 7:00pm when your customer relations department closed, the fax machine stopped answering completely. It is simply mind-boggling that a major international corporation would use a single fax machine attached to an actual telephone line for urgent incoming faxes, rather than an Internet-based service such as eFax with essentially unlimited capacity.
At this point, I had tried unsuccessfully all day to get my problem resolved through your customer relations department, and it became clear that for my wife and children to be able to come home the next day, I was just going to have to call your reservations number, change the tickets, pay whatever ransom you demanded, and then try after the fact to get some sort of refund.
Imagine my surprise when the reservations agent informed me that we were not going to be charged the $150 per ticket change fee because there was a notation on the reservation that the fee had been waived! Someone apparently decided at some point during the day to waive the fee despite never having seen the letter that had been demanded of us. Wouldn’t it have been nifty if whoever decided this had called to let me know, thus sparing me from several hours of wasted time, aggravation and panic? (Incidentally, my wife brought the letter to the airport with her the next day, but they didn’t want to see it there either.)
I was, however, still charged $100 per ticket because of the bogus difference in fares, for a total of $500 in ransom to get my family home from Georgia.
My wife’s experience on her trip home was equally frustrating. The check-in agent informed my wife that the agent who changed her tickets on Monday night did not reserve seats for her connecting flight, and for some reason he couldn’t do so either, so he couldn’t give her boarding passes and she was going to have to get them at the gate. This, despite the fact that there was only a 30-minute gap between the scheduled arrival time of the first flight and the departure time of the second, and it was unlikely that my wife would make it to the second flight with five kids even if everything went perfectly.
When my wife arrived in Charlotte, the people there were amazingly polite and helpful and bent over backwards to try to get her to her connecting flight before it left. I’m speaking about employees of the airport, not US Airways employees. These helpful people were hampered by receiving all sorts of contradictory information from US Airways – her connecting flight had already closed its doors, or it hadn’t. The flight had already left, or it hadn’t. The flight was going to leave on time, or it wasn’t. Every US airways employee seemed to have a different story. Because of all the contradictory information, my wife insisted that they bring her to the gate so that she and our children could try to board the flight.
When they got to the gate, lo and behold, the flight hadn’t left, and there were five seats open on it that my wife and children could take. They boarded the flight, and they arrived safely in Boston a few hours later.
There are so many things wrong with how we were treated by US Airways that I’m not even going to try to enumerate them all. If you can’t figure out from my narrative what your airline should have done differently, then your airline is truly beyond hope.
Now let me tell you about what I am doing to get out the message about your lousy airline.
- I have written about our experience extensively on my blog (http://blog.kamens.brookline.ma.us/tag/trapped-in-georgia/) and will continue to do so.
- I have submitted my story to various consumer advocacy Web sites such as http://consumerist.com/ and will continue to submit it to additional sites.
- I am trying to get a guest Op-Ed column published in a prominent newspaper about the risk to public health and homeland security caused by your policy of forcing people to fly while ill by threatening to charge them exorbitant fees for changing their flights (an example column is attached).
- I will be sending letters to all of my federal elected representatives urging them to enact regulations requiring the airlines to allow sick passengers to change their flights without incurring a financial penalty.
I will do my best to ensure that the cost to your airline in lost business due to damage to your reputation far exceeds the $500 you forced me to pay to rescue my family.
encl: Guest Op-Ed column submitted to the Boston Herald
|cc:||Scott Kirby, President, US Airways|
|C.A. Howlett, Senior Vice President, Public Affairs, US Airways|
|Andrew Nocella, Senior Vice President, Marketing and Planning, US Airways|
|Tom Chapman, Vice President, Congressional & Federal Affairs, US Airways|
|Kerry Hester, Vice President, Reservations and Customer Service Support, US Airways|
|Jim Olson, Vice President, Corporate Communications, US Airways|
|Donna Paladini, Vice President, Customer Service, US Airways|