By Travel columnist
updated 10/26/2005 5:20:02 PM ET 2005-10-26T21:20:02

She missed her flight from Minneapolis to Detroit by a few minutes. Now Northwest Airlines wants to charge Elizabeth Rodriguez an additional $1,289 to catch the next plane. Can the airline do that?

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Q: I was flying from Minneapolis to Myrtle Beach, S.C., with a connection in Detroit on Northwest Airlines. My children and I were late getting to the airport and missed our flight by a few minutes.

I immediately called the airline to see if we could get rebooked on the next flight. But the next available flight wasn’t until the following day. A Northwest representative told me to call my travel agent, and advised me that there would be a $100 change fee.

I agreed to pay the change fee, but when my agent rebooked the tickets, I was shocked to see the bill: an additional $1,289 - the difference between our cheaper, advance-purchase fare and a walk-up fare, minus the penalties.

I reluctantly paid it. But it doesn’t seem fair. What was going to cost me only $802 ended up setting me back by $2,091. I am on Social Security disability and have now maxed out a credit card to go on vacation. Can you help?

— Elizabeth Rodriguez,New Hope, Minn.

A: For years, airlines had what was informally known as the “flat tire” rule. Basically, if passengers could show that they missed a flight because of circumstances beyond their control, they’d be rebooked on the next one at no additional charge.

After 9/11, the flat tire rule was replaced by the onerous “No waivers, no favors” decree. That meant everything was to be done by the book. But in extreme cases like yours, most airlines were still willing to help. I’m really surprised that Northwest would charge you $1,289 for missing your flight.

It’s ironic that Northwest insisted on billing you full fare for the new tickets. A few weeks after your flight, as I tried to mediate this dispute, Northwest filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In a sense, flying into bankruptcy means asking your creditors, and to some extent, your passengers, for leniency. In bankruptcy, a company has more time to pay its bills. And generally speaking, passengers are more understanding of service delays and disruptions.

However, when you asked the airline to reconsider its decision — a ruling, I might add, that pushed you closer to your very own version of Chapter 11 — it turned you down.

I guess no good deed goes unpunished.

But there’s more than one culprit, here. When you called your travel agent, he or she should have advised you of all your options. Facing a huge bill like that, one option is to cancel your vacation. Another is to find a different carrier that can get you to your destination less expensively. Were you encouraged to check out the so-called “opaque” Web sites like Priceline and Hotwire, which might have saved you money on a last-minute fare?

I really believe that if you had stood in line at the airport and explained your situation, you would have eventually found a ticket agent (or a supervisor) who would rebook you on the next flight at no additional charge.

I asked Northwest to look into your complaint. “Customer relations responded to the customer earlier today,” Kurt Ebenhoch, an airline spokesman, wrote in an e-mail a few hours later. “We have nothing further to add.”

Northwest denied your appeal.

I, however, do have something to add. This is one of those cases in which the company is correct, but its decision wrong. Technically, Northwest can charge you the extra money for new tickets. But I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.

An airline — any company, really — that asks for special dispensation from the public and its business partners when it files for bankruptcy protection should also extend some consideration to its customers. I think Northwest missed an opportunity to show how caring it could be.

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 a note or visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story. Want to sound off about a story? Try visiting Elliott's forum.


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