Image: Traveler in S.F.
Marcio Jose Sanchez  /  AP file
When acting as your own travel agent, you have a responsibility to inform yourself, which includes finding out what terminal your flight leaves from, Christopher Elliott writes.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 11/13/2006 6:41:57 PM ET 2006-11-13T23:41:57

Q: My wife and I recently booked a flight from New York to London through Continental Airlines’ Web site. Our tickets said that we should arrive one hour before our scheduled departure. It also noted that the flight was “operated by Virgin Atlantic.”

We got caught in traffic on the way to the airport and realizing that we might be slightly late, I called Continental’s customer service number and asked if it would be a problem. A representative looked up our flight, said it was on time, but that arriving 45 minutes before takeoff should be fine.

We went to the Continental terminal, only to find out that the plane was departing from the Virgin Atlantic terminal. We still arrived 45 minutes prior to takeoff, but were not allowed to board because we weren’t within the “one-hour window.” We were told to try to fly standby on the next flight, but there was no room.

I called Continental and was told that their “hands were tied” and that they couldn’t issue a credit. Since then, Virgin has told us that we don’t have any credit at all. Please help.
— Daniel Nicastri, New York

A: Since Virgin Atlantic operated the flight that you were booked on, it alone had the authority to allow you on its plane after you missed the one-hour window. The Continental customer-service representative you spoke with had no business making any assurances that you would be “fine.”

In fact, if the Continental employee you spoke with had bothered to click over to the Virgin Atlantic Web site — or its own site, for that matter — then it would have been clear that you didn’t stand a chance of getting on that plane.

Virgin’s policies are crystal-clear. Not only do its check-in facilities close 60 minutes prior to departure times, but also if you fail to complete check-in procedures before then, “you will not be able to travel.” The carrier recommends checking in two to three hours prior to your flight.

Same thing goes for Continental. “We suggest customers arrive at the airport early,” the site warns. At JFK, the airport you were using, it recommends checking in “1-1/2 to 2 hours” early during peak travel periods.

Bottom line: the Continental representative was wrong.

But you could have avoided this problem, too. Doing a little due diligence after you book an airline ticket is never a bad idea. Even a cursory look at the Transportation Security Administration Web pageor the Web sites of the two airlines you were doing business with, would have compelled you to get a much earlier start for the airport.

You booked these tickets yourself, and when you’re acting as your own travel agent, you have a responsibility to inform yourself. That includes finding out which terminal the flight leaves from.

Still, Continental erred by telling you that you would be able to make your flight, and Virgin shouldn’t have taken your money and left you ticket-less. I contacted both airlines on your behalf, and after a protracted game of “pass the buck” between the companies, someone from the executive office at Continental contacted you and offered $1,200 in flight vouchers from Continental and $100 in Virgin vouchers.

Christopher Elliot is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. E-mail him at, or troubleshoot your trip through his Web site,

©2006 Christopher Elliott ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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