Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Update on Airlines

This is a long overdue update on a post I made in November asking why airlines aren't more supportive of people with unanticipated illnesses.

In late November, American Airlines sent me a voucher for the total cost of the three airline tickets we bought for a trip scheduled for Labor Day weekend. That was incredibly generous. It gives us until next November to apply it towards tickets, either for us or for anyone else we choose to buy tickets for. The voucher isn't transferable, but we're not limited to buying tickets for us.

That's great since even though I'm (*knock wood*) showing signs of getting my illness under control, I'm not sure when we're going to be ready to tackle the stress of traveling. I've already told many family members not to expect us to be traveling this spring/summer, even though that means missing a much anticipated double bat mitzvah and visiting friends and family in Denver in May and our annual trip to Chicago to visit my family.

In the letter of thanks I wrote to American Airlines, I vowed that they would be my airline of choice in the future because of their generosity. I can't swear that I'll always fly them; their schedule in and out of Portland to the places we fly most often is very limited. But when the schedule and ticket prices allow, I'm going to be leaning toward flying American in the future.

I remain very disappointed in United Airlines, which had long been my favorite airline and the one I chose unless there was a major price difference with another airline for when I wanted to travel. But there were many times when I paid slightly more simply to fly the "Friendly Skies."

But I guess they're only really friendly when you don't suddenly come down with an illness or other health problem that won't let you fly for a long time.

I'd bought tickets last year on my birthday (March 3 :) to fly to Chicago for my niece's high school graduation last June. Although the three of us had some symptoms of illness, it was nothing that was going to interfere with flying (or so I thought) and I even checked us in on the Web on June 4 for our June 5 flight.

Of course, those of you who have been following my story from the beginning know that I got seriously sick essentially overnight and was physically unable to get out of bed the morning of our scheduled flight. I very carefully made sure my husband called the airline to cancel our tickets, knowing that if you don't call before the flight leaves, your tickets become worthless. (At that point, I assumed I was going to be better within weeks if not days.) He made all the calls -- airline, hotel, rental car -- while I laid in bed feeling like death. I remember thinking I should go to the hospital but deciding I was too sick.

Anyway, to try to summarize, when I followed up with United several months later, I discovered that because I'd checked us in on the Web, their computer said we had traveled to Chicago as planned and just never flown back. Weird. You'd think with all the Homeland Security stuff that their computer would have noticed that although I'd checked in on the Web (and not at the airport!), we'd never boarded the plane. Aren't they supposed to match that stuff up so that terrorists can't check baggage with bombs and then not board the flight? Why bother scanning our boarding passes when we get on the plane if they don't update their computer to show who boarded and who didn't?

I was told to put it all in writing to their customer relations department, which I did. And I essentially got a form letter back that didn't address any of my specific points, including the missing credit for the outgoing part of the tickets. It repeated the standard line about how generous the airline is to allow non-refundable ticket holders to pay a fee to change the flights to a day/time that must be completed by the one-year anniversary of the original purchase date.

In other words, by my birthday a few weeks from now. I can't even imagine having tried to fly anywhere this month or the previous nine months!

In my letter, I included a note from my doctor explaining that I was too ill to travel and would be for an unknown length of time. I had hoped to be allowed to transfer the credits to my brother and his family so they could visit us in Portland.

Of course, the standard procedure says that those ticket credits are non transferable. I even asked if they could be donated to a charity like the Make-A-Wish Foundation if I couldn't use them so someone else could. But no.

Perhaps the problem is that I don't fly often enough. My brother, who is a "premier level" member of their frequent flier program, has always had his fees waived for changing flights due to illness. (And, in fact, the reservations person I spoke to last September told me that the airline usually waives those fees with a doctor's note.) But not for me. The form letter I was sent said the airline never makes exceptions for those fees.

I understand that those rules are important for the airline. But it seems to me that it's good business practice to acknowledge that sometimes, just sometimes, there are circumstances that call for exceptions.

American Airlines understood that. And they have earned my future loyalty.

I remain disappointed in United Airlines. Not only could United not acknowledge my extenuating circumstances with generosity like American, but they could not even address my issues in a non-form letter. I have frequent flier miles with them that I certainly intend to use, either for my family or to fly relatives to visit us, but they have lost my loyalty after many years of choosing them first.

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