The Navigator: Owning up to travel mistakes

In a world of airline code-sharing and outsourced call centers, who takes ultimate responsibility when something goes wrong with your flight?

For Robert and Roberta Blazek, that’s no academic question. And it has taken more than a year to find the answer. The Blazeks, from Viera, Fla., were visiting Poland in August 2011 when an electronic error voided their airline reservations, forcing them to spend $5,873 for a new pair of tickets to fly home.

Their repeated attempts to secure a refund from Travelocity, Lufthansa and United Airlines lift a veil on the often confusing agreements found in modern-day air travel and on the often strained relationship between online agencies and air carriers. They also show how customers can be left with nowhere to turn when they run into trouble while they travel.

In July 2011, Robert Blazek, a retired engineer, paid $2,984 for two round-trip tickets on Continental Airlines from Orlando to Krakow, Poland, through Travelocity.com. Although the tickets were purchased from Continental, the flights were operated by Lufthansa, a practice referred to as code-sharing.

“The first leg of the journey went as planned,” he says. “But when we checked in for our flight at Lufthansa in Krakow, we were told we did not have valid tickets. The supervisor told us we needed to call and resolve the matter and would not allow us to board the plane.”

Blazek tried to phone Travelocity but says he had trouble making an overseas call from his cellphone. “Since we did not want to remain in Krakow and the plane would be leaving shortly, we did the only thing that was left in order to return to the United States and not remain in Krakow overnight,” he recalls. “We purchased new tickets.”

You’d think a quick call to Travelocity would yield a speedy refund. But that didn’t happen.

No one knows exactly what became of Blazek’s money, but nine months later, when he contacted me for help, he had gotten absolutely nowhere.

Maybe the glitch happened on Continental’s side. At the time, the airline was in the throes of a messy merger with United Airlines. Lufthansa and Travelocity also may have been to blame for the crossed wires. Whatever, one thing was clear: No one would own up to the problem and refund Blazek’s $5,873.

Even as recently as last week, the companies were blaming each other. A Lufthansa representative said the couple didn’t have a valid return ticket and pointed out that the actual ticket belonged to Continental, not Lufthansa, and that it was sold through Travelocity. “Please understand,” she added, “our passengers are of the utmost priority to Lufthansa, and we always try to make matters right.” To that end, she said, Lufthansa had apologized and credited the Blazeks with 4,000 frequent-flier miles.

Travelocity said it contacted Continental and then United but had no luck securing a refund. “The airline advised us that Lufthansa canceled the return flights on January 29, 2011,” a Travelocity representative said in an e-mail to Blazek. “Continental Airlines will not provide additional compensation. We understand that this is a very frustrating matter and we have done all we can to try and get the carriers to offer you some kind of reimbursement.”

Travelocity offered Blazek a $100 voucher, which could be redeemed for a future trip through the online agency.

What should have happened? Someone needed to take responsibility for the mess, starting with the online travel agency that sold the ticket. At least that’s what a spokesman for a large bricks-and-mortar agency told me when I asked him about the situation. Simply put, said Steve Loucks of the Minneapolis-based travel agency Travel Leaders, the agent should “own” the problem until it’s fixed to everyone’s satisfaction.

“Since our travel agents’ businesses are built on repeat customers, typically in local communities, it’s in their best interests to work in their client’s best interests as true advocates on their behalf,” he told me. “Treat them poorly, and they’ll never come back and let others know. But give them what they want, and they’ll keep coming back and offer referrals.”

He added, “If they right a bad situation, they have customers for life.”

But even if the buck stopped with Travelocity, there’s still plenty of blame to go around. One of the airlines should have owned up to the lost-reservation problem, preferably the carrier that owned the ticket: United. And the code-share partner could have done more than offer a few miles to fix the problem. But passing the buck is becoming far too easy in an age of electronic transactions, in which the airline you’re ticketed on isn’t necessarily the airline you’re flying on.

Airline code-sharing is, without question, beneficial to airlines like United and Lufthansa. Not only are they allowed to legally share passengers and other resources, but they are given the government’s blessing to stop competing on certain routes: a “win-win,” as they say in corporate America.

The Transportation Department has taken recent steps to solve some of the problems related to code-sharing. A rule that took effect in April requires carriers to apply the same baggage allowances and fees to all segments of a trip. It’s a good start. Yet a whole list of problems, from disclosure of joint flights to refunds, can still plague those who are unfortunate enough to find themselves on a code-share flight.

I asked Travelocity and United to take another look at the Blazeks’ tickets. Scott Quigley, Travelocity’s vice president of sales and customer care, pointed out that his company handles “millions” of travel reservations without incident every month. “When issues arise, our strong supplier relationships usually allow us to resolve them quickly, conveniently and to the satisfaction of our mutual customers,” he said.

To that end, Travelocity has several departments dedicated to fixing reservations problems. “However, there are still cases where things go wrong for our customers,” he added.

This happened to be one of those cases. Quigley said that Travelocity took a closer look at the Blazeks’ problem and determined that “we could and should have escalated it more quickly with our airline partner.” Travelocity reimbursed the Blazeks in full for their remaining expenses and apologized.

How about United? I inquired about the Blazeks’ tickets. After conducting a “further” review, an airline representative said, “we believe we erred in not refunding the full amount that the Blazeks paid to get home.” United processed a full refund.

I know what you’re thinking: Wait, the Blazeks have been refunded twice, right? Yes, it appears that they have been.

I wonder whether it will take another year to figure out who should get refunded for that error. Stay tuned.

Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine’s reader advocate. E-mail him at chris@elliott.org .

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