We had not. And when we called that agency’s customer service hotline, we were told Delta was responsible for scheduling changes. Our airline and our online travel agency blamed each other for the mistake as the few remaining Europe-bound flights departing the East Coast on Thanksgiving eveningtook off across the Atlantic. Neither would refund the cost of our tickets nor pay for a hotel room or for transportation back to Washington.
Unwilling to pay thousands more for seats on a Turkish Airlines flight to Berlin with a connection in Istanbul, we were out of options. Defeated, we paid for a rental car so that we could go home, sleep, catch a Black Friday screening of “Lincoln” and return to Dulles the next night.
We didn’t just miss our show in Berlin. We missed cranberry sauce from a can.
After the tour, I filed a complaint with the Department of Transportation. Figuring that I was more likely to hear back from Santa Claus, I also called Dan Paci, my attorney in Pennsylvania, to discuss filing a lawsuit, but his triple-digit hourly fees would have devoured much of any judgment I might win.
“You get out in the real world and the practical component of a legal issue just overwhelms the real answer,” said Paci, a partner at Grim, Biehn and Thatcher in Perkasie, Pa. “The abstract legal issue and the law school exam answer have nothing to do with the settlement. It’s almost entirely a matter of economics. Who is willing to bluff? Who is willing to stretch it out the longest?”
There was a cheaper option: small claims court. The DOT even recommends it.
“There are instances where passengers might file a complaint in small claims court if they believe an airline’s actions have caused them financial harm,” wrote Bill Mosley, an agency spokesman, in an e-mail. Though rules adopted under the Obama administration can force airlines to compensate passengers when luggage is lost or delayed or when they are involuntarily bumped from flights, the DOT does not have “the authority to require compensation for other types of passenger inconvenience, such as for delayed or canceled flights, and DOT itself cannot compensate passengers directly,” Mosley wrote.
Luckily, the DOT Web site has a handy consumer guide for navigating small claims — something consumers will probably have to take on alone should they choose to file suit.