By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 3/21/2007 7:11:19 PM ET 2007-03-21T23:11:19
TRAVEL TROUBLESHOOTER

Q: My sister, Joanna, is a missionary in Africa. While she was visiting us recently, she had an opportunity to interview for a job with a Catholic bishop from Ghana. The bishop was coming to Corpus Christi, Texas, to attend the ordination of his nephew, and wanted to meet Joanna before making a decision about whether to hire her.

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Because money is a big issue with missionaries, Joanna went to Priceline.com for her tickets on Delta Air Lines. On the morning of the flight, we received a computerized phone call from Delta that said the flight had been canceled and that Joanna was automatically booked on the same flight the next day. We were told later that the flight had been canceled for lack of an adequate crew. She could still make the interview, but she would be cutting it close.

But the next day her flight was delayed. That meant Joanna would miss her connecting flight to Corpus Christi and her job interview. She asked a Delta representative if she could change her ticket to one that could get her there on time but, because she bought her ticket on Priceline, she was turned down.

We went back and forth between Delta and Priceline for hours until it became clear that my sister would miss the interview and not get the job. Priceline’s tickets are nonrefundable, but I think in this situation, Joanna deserves a refund. What do you think?
— Marie Darna, Bridgton, Maine

A: It doesn’t matter where you bought your tickets. Your airline has a legal responsibility to transport you to your destination when it says it will. And Delta didn’t meet its obligations.

Have a look at the airline’s contract of carriage on its Web site, and pay close attention to Rule 240, which covers delays and cancellations. It says that if the airline fails to transport you to your destination because of circumstances that are within its control (like, say, a crew scheduling problem) then it will fly you to your destination on the next available flight. And if it can’t, it will issue a full refund.

I don’t see anything in this contract that refers to a Priceline ticket. So whoever told your sister that her ticket couldn’t be changed was flat-out wrong.

But what your sister experienced was a breakdown on many levels. It wasn’t just the airline that failed to follow its own rules, but your online travel agency that didn’t do what it was supposed to do.

One reason you buy a ticket through a third party like Priceline, and not directly from the airline, is that if something goes wrong, there’s someone to turn to. That’s why they call them “agents” — because they are your advocates. But Priceline was not able to persuade Delta to help one of its customers, and ultimately your sister was left holding a worthless airline ticket.

It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with your airline’s terms and conditions before you fly anywhere. And when you find that the airline isn’t following its rules, it often helps to calmly remind them about what their contract says. When you use a travel agent, whether it’s online or offline, you should also remind that company of its role. It’s more than just a ticket broker. It’s your adviser and advocate.

I brought your sister’s situation to Priceline’s attention, and it promptly credited $856 back to your card, which represents a full refund of Joanna’s ticket.

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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