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Double trouble on US Airways

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December 23, 2004 column - Kristine Lopez wanted to buy tickets from Philadelphia to Tampa, Fla. But when she clicked the "submit" button to book a seat on the US Airways Web site, nothing happened. No receipt, no confirmation e-mail. So she logged on a few hours later and bought more tickets. This time, her purchase went through. But her credit-card bill tells a different story. The airline actually charged her twice - once for the tickets she believed she hadn't bought, and another time for the ones she did. Now Lopez wants her money back for one set. US Airways won't do it, citing its "no refunds" policy. Is she out of luck?

Q: I recently tried to purchase tickets for a flight from Philadelphia to Tampa, Fla., through the US Airways Web site.

But when I clicked on the "submit" button to buy the tickets, nothing happened, and I received no confirmation e-mail.

Five hours later I went online again and tried to purchase the ticket again for the same day, at a different time but a higher price. This time, I got a confirmation.

When I received my credit card bill, I found out that the first ticket purchase had gone through. If I had been told about it earlier, I could have voided the ticket under US Airways' 24-hour cancellation policy. But I never received any confirmation from the airline.

Now I have a charge for two sets of ticket, both leaving on the same day to go to the same place. US Airways is telling me that it won't refund the first set. Don't they understand that I can't go to Florida twice on the same day?

-- Kristine Lopez

A: You're right, it's impossible to make two trips in the same day. When you pointed out the error to US Airways it should have credited you for the ticket immediately.

Why didn't it? I can think of several reasons, including the fact that the airline is operating under bankruptcy protection and needs every penny of revenue. But it's also true that after 9/11, all airlines became much stricter about enforcing their fare rules under a policy called "no waivers, no favors."

Bottom line: this could have happened to you at any major airline.

There's an important lesson here for all of us. Any time you experience a failed transaction online - where you hit the "buy" button but nothing happens - you shouldn't assume nothing happened.

After you purchase a ticket online, you are normally taken to a screen that confirms your transaction and offers a full itinerary and a record locator (an alphanumeric code).

But Web servers sometimes timeout, e-mails get stuck in spam guards, and basically, you just can't assume anything anymore.

So what should you do if you click the button but get no response?

Call the airline immediately and find out if you were charged. Phone your credit card company and inform it of the failed transaction. In other words, do whatever is necessary to protect yourself.

I wasn't sure what to expect from US Airways. In the past, the airline has had an uneven record of addressing customer grievances that I've brought to its attention, sometimes working diligently to resolve them and sometimes dismissing them without explanation.

Within hours of contacting the airline and asking it to review your case, a representative called you to get a few additional details about both transactions. Less than a day later, US Airways authorized a refund on your first set of tickets and a customer service agent also apologized to you by phone for the double-billing.

I'm impressed, and not only because of this resolution. I've also been working behind the scenes with another US Airways customer who had a similar problem (I advised her on how to handle the grievance but never got directly involved). The airline addressed her problem with similar speed.

Whether this is a real turning point in the airline's approach to customer service, or just some holiday goodwill, remains to be seen.

I, for one, hope it lasts.