By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 4/12/2007 6:06:45 PM ET 2007-04-12T22:06:45
TRAVEL TROUBLESHOOTER

Q: I recently found a good deal on a flight from New York to London on MAXJet Airways, which has an all-business-class service. I bought a ticket for my wife and me at $1,100 per ticket.

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Unfortunately, we experienced some delays because of bad weather conditions. We did everything we could to get to the airport in time, including taking a helicopter from Manhattan. But we missed our flight.

We were also told that there wasn’t another MAXjet flight for several days. An airline representative said that it would cost a $100 per ticket transfer fee, plus the fare difference, to get on that flight. I assumed that the difference wouldn’t be more than a few hundred dollars, so I agreed.

Only a few hours before our outbound flight was to leave, I was told that I would have to pay an additional fee of $2,304. I thought it was extraordinarily excessive. But under the circumstances, I felt as if I had no alternative. I was afraid that my return reservations would be canceled if I did not pay up.

To make matters worse, MAXJet has now charged $2,304 twice to my credit card, which apparently is a double-billing error. I’ve disputed both charges on my card, but American Express has sided with MAXJet. I’ve tried to contact MAXJet, but it will not respond to my letters. Can you help me?
— Dwight Wolcczak, Stafford, Conn.

A: It doesn’t take much common sense to know that charging you twice the amount of your original tickets, plus a “change fee” is utterly absurd. But common sense seems to be in short supply here.

Most airlines have what’s called a “flat tire” rule — an unwritten policy that if someone misses a flight because of something beyond their control, like a traffic accident, that they put them on the next flight at no additional charge.

We cut the airlines the same break, except that it’s part of the contract of carriage — the legal agreement between you and the airline. If a flight is canceled because of weather, or anything else beyond the carrier’s control, then the airline basically owes us nothing.

MAXJet should have put you on the next flight at no additional charge.

You should have made your situation clear to the gate agent and refused to leave the airport without a new ticket. I’m not sure why MAXJet couldn’t issue a new ticket right then and there, but walking away with all those loose strings seems to be asking for trouble.

Agreeing to pay an additional $2,304 was also a mistake. You shouldn’t assume that the airline would hold your entire itinerary hostage until it tells you it would. (I don’t think it would have.)

Signing your credit card receipt made it extremely difficult to resolve your case. Dispute resolution officers at charge card companies like to work in black and white. If you signed the receipt, you agreed to the charge. End of story.

MAXJet should have responded to your letter and offered a clearer explanation of the charges. I contacted the airline on your behalf, and as it turns out, you were incorrectly charged for the new tickets. MAXJet has issued a full refund.

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

© 2007 Christopher Elliott ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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