By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/6/2008 9:47:48 AM ET 2008-10-06T13:47:48

Airline passengers are usually a forgiving lot. When a flight doesn't take off as planned, they understand. When they have to pay extra for a checked bag because of “higher” fuel prices, they oblige.

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But there's one thing that makes passengers mad as hell. And it recently happened to Jim Allen.

Allen, who works for an electronics company in Lowell, Mass., was trying to book a ticket from Manchester, N.H., to Little Rock, Ark., on Delta Air Lines' site. He found a great deal — $251 roundtrip — and then clicked the “buy” button.

That's when he noticed the price had changed to $314.

“As I sat in amazement to what just happened, the screen refreshed again and the airfare went to $387,” he remembers. “And then it happened again. It went to $422, where it stopped.”

Complaints about these bait-and-switch fares are becoming increasingly common, but Delta's site gets more than its fair share, according to Phoenix-based aviation consultant Roy Rosales. “Delta's site seems like the worst,” he says. “After entering all information and credit card numbers, sometimes you'll get the, ‘Oh it just sold out!’ message. Seems to be a limitation with its reservation system.”

All across the airline industry, promises are being broken with greater frequency. In part, it's because air carriers are making more promises than ever — especially to their valuable elite-level frequent fliers — and in part, it's because airlines can't control some of the basic components of their business. They're at the mercy of an antiquated air traffic control system and market forces such as price-sensitive passengers and marginally higher energy costs, that taken together, make it difficult to come through with the service they pledge to deliver.

(I asked Delta about its reservations system. Although it acknowledged my e-mail, it did not answer my question.)

“The airlines are in panic mode right now,” says Mark Britton, the former general counsel for Expedia.com who now runs the legal resources Web site Avvo.com. “I think that's made them more likely to override customer service to save money.”

In other words, people are bound to be disappointed.

But not you. Here are three of the most egregious ways airlines break their promises to customers — and what you can do about it.

1. We're flying there — oh, wait, no we're not
When an airline accepts your money and issues a ticket, you would expect it to honor that commitment. And when it doesn't? The least it can do is offer a full refund. But that's not what happened to Ivelisse Leslie when Spirit Airlines stopped flying from Orlando to Providenciales on Turks and Caicos Islands recently. She phoned Spirit to see if she could get her money back on her confirmed ticket to the Caribbean island. One agent told her a refund was “impossible” and another hung up on her.

“It was a classic case of bait-and-switch,” she says. “Yes we will take your money but we are not flying to said destination, but we have your money so you have no other recourse. Oh by the way, we offer no apologies or consolations.”

How do you avoid it? Leslie didn't mess around with Spirit's customer service department, which is among the least responsive in the industry. She disputed the charges on her credit card and got her money back. Another option: take the airline to small claims court.

2. Don't go changing
Airlines often bend their strict nonrefundability rules, particularly when a natural disaster strikes.

Jordan Golson, a writer based in Boston, found himself in such a situation when he was vacationing in Pensacola, Fla., with his family a few summers ago. “Thirty-six hours after we arrived, we had a hurricane warning with a mandatory evacuation order,” he remembers.

“We fled inland 60 miles to my grandmother's home in Evergreen, Ala., to wait out the hurricane.” His airline, US Airways, had agreed to waive change fees for passengers affected by the storm. But when he phoned the carrier to make the change, a representative said he couldn't switch flights because technically, the Pensacola airport had re-opened. The only solution? To buy a pricey one-way ticket back to Boston.

How do you avoid it? Golson found the names and numbers of several key US Airways executives and informed them of the problem. “Twenty minutes later, someone from US Airways called and asked exactly what I needed,” he remembers. “Ten minutes after that, we had reservations from Montgomery to Boston.”

3. Compensation denied
When something goes wrong, and an airline agrees to send you a voucher or refund, you're home free — right?

That's what James Simon thought when Virgin Atlantic canceled his flight a few months ago and rebooked him on British Airways. He had been downgraded from business class to economy, and was promised a $250 voucher or 25,000 miles for the trouble. But after months of waiting, Virgin didn't send him either. Simon's patience was at an end. “I'm filing a small claims case against them,” he told me. After bringing Simon's case to Virgin's attention, it made good on its promise.

How do you avoid it? Persistent, polite requests sent to an airline's customer service department reminding it of its promises is usually all it takes to shake something loose. After that, your next stop is probably small claims court.

So what's the problem here? In a word, it's deregulation. At least that's the assessment of Jerry Sterns, a San Francisco aviation attorney. “It's much the same as what happened to the financial and banking industry, which has been in the news these days,” he says.

“Deregulation is premised on the idea that pure, unbridled, unregulated competition among the carriers is the way to go.”

“And yes, Virginia,” he adds, “there is a Tooth Fairy.”

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

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