By January 20, 2005 column
Special to msnbc.com
updated 1/24/2005 8:14:17 PM ET 2005-01-25T01:14:17

David Zerbian’s flight to Norfolk, Va., is canceled because of mechanical problems. So American Airlines sends him from Little Rock, Ark., to Dallas on a bus but neglects to tell airport officials about the plan. He ends up in Texas after midnight with no place to stay for the night. What does the airline owe him for the inconvenience?

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Q: My wife and I were on an American Eagle flight from Little Rock, Ark., to Chicago with a connecting flight to Norfolk, Va.

The flight was cancelled because of mechanical problems and we were told to go to the main ticket counter to get rebooked. We asked for a rental car to drive to Norfolk, but were told this was not allowed.

Instead, an airline agent told that a bus would take us to Dallas for a connecting flight to Norfolk the following morning. We arrived in Dallas after midnight but there was no one at the American Airlines terminal to help us.

We had to take matters into our own hands. We got a room at the Hyatt Hotel and were able to get a few hours of sleep before our 6 a.m. flight the following morning.

I talked to an operations manager in Dallas the next day. He had spoken with a ticket agent from the night before, who told him she did not receive word from Little Rock that a bus was being sent or had arrived until after 1:30 a.m.

I would like a refund on our hotel room, our parking bill at Norfolk and a future flight on American. I also want an upgrade on my next flight plus 50,000 frequent flier miles in my account.

— David Zerbian Virginia Beach, Va.

A: There’s no doubt that you were inconvenienced because of American Eagle’s mechanical delay. Without question, you deserve some kind of compensation.

Telling American what you want is important. Few travelers bother to inform a travel company what it would take to make things right, and as a result they have no idea how to make amends.

Under American Airlines’ conditions of carriage – the legal agreement between the airline and you – you’re entitled to something for the trouble. For example, American will reroute your on its next flight with available seats. If the delay is “caused by events within our control” and you’re delayed by a day or more, the carrier will also provide “reasonable overnight accommodations, subject to availability.”

The next time you encounter a mechanical delay, don’t wait for someone at the airport to offer an update. Call the airline and find out what options you have. (Thanks to cell phones, you can stand in line and call the reservations phone number at the same time, which basically doubles your chance of getting on the next flight.)

Always think ahead. If it looks as if you’re going to be stuck overnight, get a ticket agent or a supervisor to authorize a hotel or meal voucher before you board the plane or bus, or to at least make a call on your behalf to the airline station manager at your stopover destination. The minute you land, all bets are off.

I contacted American Airlines, and it acknowledged that your trip hadn’t gone “smoothly” (talk about an understatement). “We should always do everything possible to make such situations a little less frustrating and I’m disappointed that we didn’t do so on this particular occasion,” said Roland Johnson.

American refunded your hotel and offered a $400 transportation voucher. It declined to cover your parking, refund your future ticket, upgrade you or issue 50,000 miles to your mileage account.

Then again, you were asking for too much. I think American compensated you correctly.


Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman and a nationally syndicated columnist who specializes in solving your travel problems. Got a trip that needs fixing? Contact him directly viaemailor visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story.

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