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A divided schedule on United

John Knapp tries to change his airline ticket from Fayetteville, Ark., to Washington, but his airline won’t let him and his travel agency, Orbitz, won’t help him. Now he has to pay for a new ticket. Is he entitled to a refund? And if so, who should pay him back?
/ Source: Tribune Media Services

Q: I recently booked a multi-city trip through Orbitz from Chicago to Fayetteville, Ark., and then on to Washington. Unfortunately, my plans changed and I wasn’t able to leave Fayetteville until two days after my originally scheduled departure.

I contacted Orbitz by phone to change my second flight, which was on Northwest Airlines. After being on hold for two hours, I was told that my itinerary “wouldn’t be released” by United Airlines, the carrier I had flown from Chicago to Fayetteville on, since I had already used the first part of my ticket. The only change United would allow was to take another United flight.

But United couldn’t get me to Washington on time. I needed to be on the earlier Northwest Airlines flight. Ultimately, I had to pay for a second ticket on Northwest for $665.

I’ve used Orbitz numerous times and have never encountered a problem with an airline holding my reservation. I strongly believe that I, as an Orbitz customer, should not be penalized for a problem the airline carriers have with each other. I’d like to get my $665 back. Can you help?
— John Knapp, Minneapolis

A: You should have been able to change your flight after paying a fee and any fare differential. And when you couldn’t, your online agent should have stepped in to help — even if it meant finding you new ticket.

I’ve checked with both your airline and travel agency to see what went wrong. Your trip from Chicago to Washington by way of Fayetteville used two airlines — United and Northwest — but was booked by one agency. When you needed to stay in Fayetteville a few extra days, getting on the right flight to Washington should have been as easy as calling Orbitz and paying the necessary fees.

When I contacted United, it said it had never heard of a reservation being “held” in the way you describe. But between what Orbitz was telling you and United and Northwest was telling Orbitz, it’s hard to know exactly what was going on.

You did the right thing by contacting Orbitz. The site promises its customers unrivaled service with a “seasoned customer care team” that monitors everything from air traffic to weather data to ensure you’ll have a pleasant trip. Putting people on “hold” for two hours probably isn’t something they would want to be known for.

It’s a little ironic that United and Northwest were two of the airlines that originally started Orbitz (they no longer own the online agency). You would think that they could have worked out their differences on this one.

A call to United probably wouldn’t have hurt, but in the end, I think a resolution was up to Orbitz. And when I contacted Orbitz on your behalf, that’s exactly what it did. “Ultimately, as the customer’s agents, the buck stops with us,” said Brian Hoyt, a company spokesman. “We could have done more to improve the level of service this customer received and we apologize to Mr. Knapp for this gaffe in service.”

Hoyt said there were “multiple steps” along the way — from the customer to the airline — that could have been improved, and that Orbitz is working to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Orbitz has refunded $665.10 to Knapp, the amount of the new one-way ticket.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of “What You Get For The Money: Vacations,” on the Fine Living TV Network. E-mail him at