By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 7/23/2007 6:28:39 PM ET 2007-07-23T22:28:39

My husband and I traveled to Philadelphia recently to visit my granddaughter for her sixth birthday. Our Southwest Airlines flight was supposed to arrive in Philadelphia at 10:45 a.m., but our plane couldn’t land because of a storm. Instead, we were diverted to Baltimore.

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Everyone was confused because Southwest had no flights from Baltimore to Philadelphia. Our only option was to take the train to Philadelphia, which cost $118. A Southwest employee in Baltimore told us that we would be reimbursed for our trip if we called the airline’s 1-800 number and explained that our plane had been diverted.

After I arrived in Philadelphia, I called Southwest and asked for a reimbursement. The airline refused to pay for our train ticket. I think that if an airline makes a promise, it should keep it. Don’t you? — Saundra Shepherd, Wendell, N.C.

A: I do. But talk is cheap, and what really matters is what’s in Southwest Airlines’ written contract.

Southwest’s legal agreement with you, which is available on its Web site, says that in the event of an “irregular operation” which is defined as, among other things, a change to the schedule of any flight, it will transport you to your intended destination on the next Southwest flight on which space is available, or give you a refund of the unused portion of your fare.

But the next paragraph seems to let the airline off the hook for “failure or delay in operating any flight due to causes beyond (Southwest’s) control,” including weather.

So what’s Southwest’s policy on interrupted flights? Another document, Southwest’s customer commitment, offers some clues. If the airline is unable to transport you to your destination as scheduled, it says, you’ll be “accommodated on the next Southwest flight(s) with seats available to your destination” at no extra charge.

Confused yet?

Here’s how I interpret Southwest’s rules: If a flight is diverted to another city, the airline will do its best to put you on another Southwest flight to your final destination. But if circumstances beyond its control — like the weather — force a diversion, it might let itself off the hook, dropping you off at a nearby airport and considering its contract fulfilled.

Now, I can understand that happening when a flight to, say, Love Field in Dallas is diverted to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. But Baltimore is more than 100 miles from Philadelphia.

The train wasn’t your only option. You could have been re-routed to Philadelphia via another city served by Southwest. That would have probably been far more inconvenient than taking the train, but it was an option. If a Southwest employee offered to pay for your train ticket, you should have asked for that promise in writing. I couldn’t find any provisions for covering the costs of a train fare in any of the airline’s contracts or policies.

If this ever happens to you again, I would recommend going to the airline’s ticket counter and asking someone how they intend to get you to your destination. Remember, weather or no weather, the carrier’s contract with you technically isn’t fulfilled unless you make it to Philadelphia, or wherever you happen to be flying. Don’t assume that you only have one choice and then ask an airline employee to verbally sign off on it.

I asked Southwest to take another look at your case. Whitney Eichinger, an airline spokeswoman, told me that the airline doesn’t consider its contract fulfilled until you reach your final destination — weather or no weather. It turns out Southwest had offered its passengers on your flight the option of flying to Philadelphia the following day, she said.

You received a letter from the airline apologizing for the inconvenience of being diverted and reimbursing you for the train fare to Philadelphia. It also enclosed a $200 voucher for a future flight.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of “What You Get For The Money: Vacations,” on the Fine Living TV Network. E-mail him at celliott@ngs. org.


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