By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 8/17/2010 4:58:18 PM ET 2010-08-17T20:58:18
travel troubleshooter

Q: My wife and I recently flew from Vancouver to Ecuador on Continental Airlines, then to Lima on LAN Chile. After booking the trip through our travel agent of about 20 years, we asked if we could change the LAN leg from Quito to Lima by two days without penalty.

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Our travel agent called Continental and was told that the LAN leg could be changed without any change fee because we weren't changing any Continental legs. He asked if they were certain that there would be no change fee and was assured that was the policy. He had another follow-up discussion with a Continental agent and was given the same information. We changed the flight.

Two months after our flight, our agent was advised that we should have been charged a change fee of $500 and an electronic fee transaction was applied to the travel agent's bank account. Our travel agency has challenged the payment with Continental without success.

Today I called Continental and spoke to an international ticket agent. She said my agent had no recourse, and should have known the rules. When I asked her how Continental expects travel agents to know the rules, but not their own agents, I didn't get an answer. I asked to speak to a supervisor about my complaint, but was told "there is no point as the booking is no longer in our computer system."

If Continental had told us that there would be a $500 change fee when we first enquired about the change we would not have changed our flight to Lima. It is very high-handed of Continental to conduct business in this manner. We would greatly appreciate anything you might do to help.
— Brian Petersmeyer, Vancouver, Canada

A: Continental shouldn't have charged your travel agent $500 after your flight. And even if it had, you shouldn't have been dragged into it.

Let's take these issues one at a time. The charge from Continental to your agent is referred to as a debit memo. Airlines send them to travel agents when they've booked a ticket incorrectly (or, as they often like to say, illegally). The problem with these memos is that they're arbitrary and sometimes unreasonable. If an agency doesn't pay the fine, it could lose its ability to write an airline ticket.

You're correct in your assessment of the airline's position. Airlines (not just Continental) expect agents to know their rules, and when they violate them, air carriers are quick to demand that they pay whatever penalty they see fit. I would have no problem with this, as long as airlines were clear about their rules. In your case, it appears Continental's employees misinformed your agent.

Should you have forked over $500? No. You used a travel agent and paid a booking fee because of his expertise. Also, you paid your travel agent for the tickets, not the airline. I can certainly understand why an agent might be tempted to pass along a debit memo to a client, but in almost every circumstance, I don't think the customer is responsible for a fare difference or penalty. It's your agent's problem.

You might have cleared this up by sending a brief, polite e-mail to Continental. I list the names of customer service executives here. A written query might have initiated a more thorough investigation, which might have revealed that the agents to whom you and your agent spoke gave you incorrect information about the change fee. Most airlines record every conversation in their call centers, and can listen to what an agent said and then make a determination.

I contacted Continental on behalf of you and your travel agent. Your agent contacted you shortly after that, saying that Continental had reversed the charges.

© 2010 Christopher Elliott ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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