By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 2/22/2007 11:15:18 AM ET 2007-02-22T16:15:18
TRAVEL TROUBLESHOOTER

Q: I recently endured a 30-hour delay on an American Airlines flight from San Francisco to Pittsburgh via Chicago. Although my initial delay was caused by the weather, I believe it was exacerbated by the airline’s inadequate and inconsistent customer care practices.

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My connecting flight from Chicago to Pittsburgh was canceled because of storms, and I spent the rest of that day and the next day standing by for every American flight while other airlines were flying to Pittsburgh. Most flights were either oversold or canceled.

As I waited, I observed American ticket agents accommodating some passengers whose flights were delayed, while others had to wait. We were given inconsistent information about flight availability, and I watched some passengers who were bumped from their flights because of the weather receiving compensation.

I completely understand that inclement weather is out of the airline’s control, and I respect American’s policy to not compensate passengers for delays associated with weather. However, from my observation, this policy was differentially applied. Is it asking too much for the airline to be consistent?
— Vinit Desai, Berkeley, Calif.

A: Absolutely not. If an airline is forcing some passengers to wait but issuing boarding passes to others, that doesn’t really seem fair.

But since when has airline travel been fair?

Airline passengers have always been segmented into the “haves” and “have-nots.” First-class passengers board the plane at their whim, sit in more comfortable seats, eat better meals and are generally treated better than folks in steerage class.

So it is no surprise to me that you watched some passengers cut in line during your weather delay. Air travel is not for egalitarians.

Still, you would expect some of the rules to be evenly applied. For example, when it comes to compensating passengers for a delay, no airline contracts I’ve seen draw a meaningful distinction between economy class and first-class passengers. Nor, I believe, should they.

If the passengers who cut in line were bumped from their flights for the same reason you were, then they should have been treated in exactly the same way. And although 30-hour delays aren’t addressed in American’s terms and conditions, it’s obvious that you shouldn’t have had to wait that long.

But your recollection of the events is somewhat different than American’s. According to its records, the passengers who were given preferential treatment had been denied boarding on another flight for mechanical reasons — and under the rules, they were entitled to the compensation they received.

Next time you are faced with a long weather delay, consider buying a ticket destination on an airline that is still running. Even though the airline won’t give you a free ticket, chances are it won’t force you to pay the overpriced walk-up fare, either.

Your alternative is to stay put for a day or more, at your own expense. And you probably have better things to do than wait at an airport.

I contacted American on your behalf, and it sent you a letter apologizing for the unusually long delay. Even though it insisted that its rules were applied consistently, it admitted that it could have more “effectively explained the situation” to you. As a gesture of goodwill, it sent you a $200 voucher.

Christopher Elliot is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. E-mail him at chris@elliott.org, or troubleshoot your trip through his Web site, http://www.csr.elliott.org

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

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