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Rule 240: Read It, Know It, Use It

Airline Complaints On The Rise
While airlines were posting records for full planes, flight frequency, and most of all profits last year, 1998 was no banner year for the folks who are filling the seats and paying for the tickets.

Consumer discontent with the airlines is on the rise: according to the US Department of Transportation, consumers registered 722 complaints about airline service with the DOT in November, 1998. This is only a 10 percent decrease from the 805 complaints received in October, but 43 percent more than the 503 tallied in November 1997.

To be fair, it's not just airlines. General consumer complaints are up 36 percent this year, according to a worthy rant by Heather Chaplin in Salon. Chaplin estimates she saved $880 dollars in six months by checking bills and disputing them (i.e., complaining) at length.

That "at length" part is the "devil in the details"; satisfaction rarely comes easy in these situations. But it's one thing to spend an hour on the phone talking to customer service folks, it's another thing entirely to endure eight hours on the tarmac.

Northwest's New Year's Debacle

Witness the ordeal of a couple who were trapped with a plane full of passengers for eight hours on a tarmac, probably less than a mile from where they had parked their car in the Detroit airport. They're suing Northwest for "false imprisonment and breach of contract" after the recent New Year's weekend winter storms in the Midwest. Their lawyer compared the ordeal to being taken hostage.

Who's Responsible?
It all comes down to Rule 240, which airline rules guru Terry Trippler calls the most misunderstood rule in all airline-dom. For your edification, here's some info from The Travel Critic.

There are typically two recognized situations covered by Rule 240: a "Schedule Irregularity," and a "Force Majeure Event," some sort of French legalese for an "Act of God."

If the airline causes the problem (a "Schedule Irregularity"), such as with a mechanical problem, overbooking, or a botched reservation, they have to make good on it, within limits. However, the airlines have less liability for a "Force Majeure Event," including weather, civil commotion, wars, hostilities, strikes, labor-related disputes, government regulation, shortage of labor or fuel, or other unforeseen occurences.

Essentially, if there's a Force Majeure Event, the airline's only obligation is to refund your ticket. Airlines will typically do their best to get you to your destination, but they're not necessarily obligated to do so.

Your Options
When the airlines decide to treat us poorly, passengers can feel completely powerless. "I AM customer service," scowled an agent in Minneapolis when asked to speak to a customer service agent. It doesn't have to be so.

If the airline is at fault, you should expect them to try pretty hard to get you where your going; Trippler outlines specific acceptable solutions in the link above. If none of their solutions is acceptable to you, you're entitled to a full refund, even on non-refundable tickets.

In the event of a "Force Majeure Event," your best option is sometimes to check availability on other airlines, find out if they'll accept a ticket from your airline, get your airline to endorse the tickets, and fly on the other airline. This worked well for me in Minneapolis, and Northwest was cooperative once we figured out a solution. Try to use the 800 number in these cases.

Sadly, It Pays to Complain (Some of the Time, and Politely)
A few months ago, a traveler needed to fly on an open-ended ticket due to a family emergency. They were given flexible options for the return flight, but when they were ready to return home, an agent told them that there were no flights that day, or the next day, or the next -- they could get home four days later.

The traveler asked for a supervisor, and within ten minutes, they had a flight out the next day (albeit with a four-hour layover, entirely acceptable given the circumstances). A miracle!

These "miracles" happen all the time -- for better or worse, it pays to complain.

On the other hand, if there's a blizzard, the least productive action can be to stand at a ticket counter and howl about missing a meeting or connection. There's nothing anyone can do about it -- better to relax a bit.

And complaining can backfire -- in my own travels, a vengeful agent responded to my promise to file a complaint by filing her own report, which appeared on our reservation every time it was called up, following us through the rest of our itinerary.

We Feel Their Pain
By rule 240, Northwest owes the folks trapped on the tarmac nothing; the delays were attributable to a formidable winter storm, as well as a labor shortage. (A court may find differently -- I don't know, I'm not a lawyer.) I was in the same mess that the Koczara's were in, one state over in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In my case, it turned out that the storm was the least of my troubles.

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