By Travel columnist
updated 2/24/2005 7:29:19 PM ET 2005-02-25T00:29:19

Three weeks before she leaves for vacation, Julie McCarthy’s airline calls her to reschedule her flight to Las Vegas. But when she arrives at the airport, they tell her the flight is oversold and she can’t travel for two more days. She’s promised a refund and a free ticket. But now Spirit Airlines won't follow through.

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Q: I booked a flight with Spirit Airlines to fly from Detroit to Las Vegas to see our family. About three weeks before our scheduled departure, I got a phone call advising me that my originally scheduled flights had been canceled and that I was going to be on different flights. The dates were the same, but the times were worse.

We arrived at the airport more than an hour before our scheduled departure and were told that the flight had been overbooked. A Spirit Airlines representative told us that he could put us on a flight two days later — maybe.

The representative told me there was nothing more he could do. Our tickets could be reused within the year. He also offered us free round trip tickets as compensation for our trouble.

I was heartbroken. We had made these reservations 10 months in advance — Spirit had my money for that long. We returned home, upset about wasting hours traveling to the airport and sad that we would not be able to see our family in Las Vegas.

When I called Spirit the following business day to find out how we could get our compensation, I was told they had no record of an overbooked flight.

After spending a significant amount of time on hold and repeating my story several times, I was told by a supervisor that no one had offered me free flights as compensation. She said the best she could do was to refund my money for the original tickets. I was livid.

I asked to speak with her supervisor. Eventually, that person agreed to offer me three $150 vouchers toward another flight.

After all that I’ve been through, I just want Spirit to keep its promise. Can you help me?

— Julie McCarthySarnia, Ontario

A: You were cutting it close by showing up an hour before departure. Spirit’s contract of carriage — the agreement between you and the airline — states that check-in starts three hours before departure and that your reservation can be canceled 45 minutes before the plane leaves.

Section VII, part D of Spirit’s contract addresses a situations such as yours. If you are denied boarding because of an oversold flight, you are entitled to compensation and a refund or compensation and rerouting.

The value of the ticket and the length of the delay determine the amount of denied boarding compensation. For example, if you’re delayed by an hour, you get nothing. But if the delay is longer than two hours, you’re due the equal of 200 percent of the sum of the face value of your remaining ticket coupons, with a $400 maximum.

As I read this contract, and as I understand your situation, Spirit should have paid you in cash for your inconvenience and then put you on the next flight to Las Vegas, even if it wasn’t on Spirit.

Airlines aren’t terribly keen on having their passengers know what they’re entitled to when things go wrong. Until recently, few carriers bothered to post their contract on their Web sites. Many still bury the contracts four or five clicks into the site. I have to credit Spirit for being upfront about its terms, at least on its Web site.

It might have been a good idea to make a printout of the contract before you traveled. I think it’s possible that the employee you dealt with in Detroit wasn’t familiar with the specifics of the contract, either. I mean, who has time to read all that legalese?

Next time you’re bumped from a flight — and honestly, Julie, I hope there isn’t a next time — make sure you get any promises in writing. Don’t just write down the name of the agent who promises you a free ticket. Get the ticket.

I contacted Spirit and its manager of corporate relations e-mailed you with an apology and an offer of three round-trip tickets. In her note, she blamed “glitches in the system that communicates with our travel partners” for the initial misunderstanding.

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? Send him anoteor visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story.


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