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Persistence, knowledge make squawking manageable

Persistence, knowledge make squawking manageable

Published in the Asbury Park Press 04/20/05
BY DAVID MANNWEILER
The Indianapolis Star

Sheep is what Christopher Elliott considers today’s complacent travelers.

“People should squawk when they’re not happy,” says Elliott, ombudsman at National Geographic Travel magazine. “If they’re not having a positive experience, they definitely should let someone know.”

Alexander Anolik, author of “The Frequent Traveler’s Guide” (Sourcebooks, $14.95), agrees. The San Francisco attorney is one of the few experts working in travel law today. “When you realize travel is the No. 1 service industry in this country, involving billions of dollars, to have just a handful of us is amazing,” he says.

Elliott and Anolik have experienced the wails of the unhappy, the complaints of the delayed, the confusion of the perplexed. Out-of-sorts travelers go to them for a receptive ear and advice on how to resolve their complaints about lost luggage, delayed planes, hotel mix-ups and rental car woes.

“People spend hours and hours on a computer searching for the best fares,” Elliot says, “but they don’t bother to take a few more minutes to learn their rights as a traveler if something goes wrong.”

Following are some of the most common problems travelers deal with and what the experts say we “livestock” can do about it:

Complaint: The airlines overbooked my flight and I was bumped. What happens now?

Your rights: Overbooking a flight is not illegal. Nor is it illegal for a customer not to show up for his flight, which is the reason airlines overbook. When flights are overbooked, gate attendants will ask for volunteers to give up their seats, usually for free tickets for future travel. If that doesn’t work, cash is offered along with free tickets. Each airline says how much cash. Negotiate. Don’t take the airline’s first offer.

If there aren’t enough volunteers, passengers are involuntarily bumped, often in the order in which they checked in at the departure gate or when they bought their ticket. The last one checked in is usually the first one bumped. An airline can do that because its “contract of carriage” specifies a minimum check-in time (usually 20 minutes) prior to departure and how long the airline has (usually 10 minutes) prior to departure before it can cancel your reservation and give it to another passenger. The airline also can give away your seat if you’re not as the departure gate on time.

The airline doesn’t have to compensate you if it puts you on a flight that arrives at your destination within on hour of your original scheduled arrival time. If the substitute flight arrives between on and two hours after the originally scheduled time, the airlines will pay you the lesser of $200 or the cost of your one-way fare to your original destination. Delays of four hours bump the Denied Boarding Compensation to $400.

Confused? The Department of Transportation requires each airline to “conspicuously” display a written statement of passenger rights at each desk, station and position. Ask to see it.

The Compensations don’t apply to planes with 60 or fewer seats 9covering most commuter airlines) or if an airline substitutes a smaller plane requiring some passengers to be bumped.

Complaint: My flight was canceled and there are no flights for my destination on that day. Am I going to be stuck like Tom Hanks in the terminal all night?

Your rights: Airline policies vary, but if the canceled flight is the airline’s fault, most will try to provide hotel accommodations and meal vouchers. Consumer Reports notes that if the flight is ordered not to fly because of terrorist or security threat, the airline is not legally required to do anything for its stranded passengers – no hotel room or food vouchers.

That’s a “force majeure” (a force major), an event beyond the airline’s control that nullifies the airline’s contract of carriage. The airline does have to provide a full refund. Other “force majeures” are the weather, strikes, air traffic delays, airport closures, fuel shortages, flight crew shortages due to late-arriving planes, war, hostilities, civil commotion and “acts of God.”

Complaint: The airlines lost my luggage. Who’s going to pay for all my stuff?

Your rights: the airlines will pay up to $2,800 per passenger for a lost or damaged bag on a domestic flight, but it might take one to six months before an airline agrees a bag is gone or simply “misdirected.” (About 2 percent of all missing luggage remains lost.) On international flights, airlines pay $9.07 per pound for lost luggage. Airlines negotiate a depreciated price for lost items, not the original or replacement cost. Airlines pay to repair damaged luggage.

Lists vary from airline to airline, but generally they refuse liability for antiques, computer and electronic equipment, film, “fragile and irreplaceable” items, jewelry, keys, manuscripts and business papers, medications, money, perishable items, photographs, samples, securities, silverware and watches.

Airlines are not responsible for anything missing out of a checked bag.

About that insurance airlines offer? The Travel Insider says don’t buy it. The insurance costs $1 to $2 per $100 coverage (with the excluded items still in fore) “but fewer than one in 10,000 bags end up being totally lost, which means the cost to the airline of selling you this premium is actually 1 cent per 100.”
Complaint: I had a guaranteed room, confirmation printout, credit card guarantee and all, but when I showed up, there was no room at the inn. Where do I sleep?

Your rights: If you arrived when you said you would and you have a confirmed reservation, the hotel has a commitment to help you find another room. It should pay for the first night’s room at another hotel; provide transportation to that hotel and a free three-minute long-distance call to an office or home to report the new facility. The hotel also should pay the room price difference if the second hotel is more expensive.