Airlines, Regulations, and Customer Service: Where is the Accountability?

Allison Sodha

As much as I treasure traveling, the joy of flying often loses out to cancelled flights, inflated baggage fees, and poor customer service. Although recent regulations aim to protect the customer, including compensation for tarmac delays, we still have a long way to go before airlines take full responsibility for their actions. Airfare watchdog recently posted an article outlining the 12 Airline Regulations We Need Now. As #1 states: "If an airline changes its schedule before you depart on a trip, and such schedule change no longer suits your schedule, the airline must secure you transportation on another airline at your original fare." Yes, yes, and yes.

Last month, Sodha Travel's air desk encountered one of the most challenging and frustrating situations in all our years of booking air travel.

In March 2014, a family of five booked international flight tickets from Sodha Travel. Traveling to India, the clients (I will call them Tom and Ana) worked extensively with our South Asia air representative to find the best schedules that accommodated their three young children. Ultimately, this resulted in United and Turkish Airlines. Fast forward to last month, when Tom and Ana went online 24 hours before departure to check their flight status. They (as well as we) were shocked to learn that one of their flights had been cancelled. Due to limited holiday availability, the airline rerouted them with three stops (and a red-eye) to reach Mumbai. Understandably in a panic, the clients called us for assistance.

Since our air reps reconfirm the flight status 72 hours before departure, we were alarmed to find that the schedule in our internal flight system still showed the original itinerary -- especially because Tom and Ana's flights had actually been cancelled in October. Moreover, neither United nor Turkish communicated the schedule changes, so we had no opportunity to review and approve the new itinerary. And so, at 8 pm on December 23rd, our team started working with both United and Turkish to find more suitable options for the family.

Within a few hours, we changed the outgoing flights to a better schedule with only one-stop. Mission successful - or so we thought. We soon learned that the United airline rep accidentally changed the date of their return flight when rebooking the other segments. Now, instead of having a 3-day stopover in Istanbul, they were staying in India. United (mildly) apologized for the error and tried to put the family on the original flights -- only to learn the seats were granted to waitlisted passengers and the flight was sold out. They (mildly) tried to accommodate the family on other partner airlines, but unfortunately the flights were all oversold.

This is where airline accountability is so important, as referenced in the Airfarewatchdog Airline Regulations article. United blamed Turkish, while Turkish blamed United. Though part of the same network, neither airline wanted to be held accountable for the error. Eventually, after several days, the family was finally booked from Delhi - Istanbul on their original travel dates. Although it was the best option, Tom and Ana had to pack up the children and purchase five last-minute air tickets from Mumbai to Delhi, plus two hotel rooms for an overnight stay. (I will interject here to say they had purchased travel insurance for the trip, so fortunately they will be refunded for their expenses.)

And so, the family arrived at the Delhi airport for their flight to Istanbul. They soon learned that only three ticket numbers were valid, and Turkish refused to issue boarding passes. While Sodha Travel's air rep was fighting furiously to have the correct ticket numbers issued --yet another error by United --the Turkish gate agent actually ripped up their tickets and gave all five seats to waitlisted passengers. Yes, even though the United desk was only steps away from the Turkish counter at the airport, the agents refused to help. And it doesn't stop there.

As the family returned to the hotel, they decided the stress was enough and they just wanted to fly home. Honestly, who could blame them? Several hours later, our air rep rebooked them on Lufthansa. Tom and Ana cancelled their Istanbul holiday and instead sat with their children at an airport hotel.

I wish this was the end. However, when the family once again returned to the airport, they learned the Lufthansa flight was oversold. All five were bumped from the flight. Although this is common, and Lufthansa followed the regulatory guidelines, the timing was obviously horrific. Emotions were running very high. After several more hours of phone calls, the family was finally accommodated on Lufthansa flights the following day. Sodha Travel's air rep was also able to upgrade Tim, Ana, and their children to business class -- a small silver lining to the otherwise turbulent incident.

The above summarizes an extreme version of an otherwise fairly regular practice. Many airlines just don't have the desire or will to empathize with their customers. When will it all stop? Unfortunately, this is nothing new, as outlined in my Open Letter to the Airline Industry from January 2013.

In total, our air rep spent 47+ hours with three different airlines to get the family home. That is 47+ hours Tim, Ana, and their family did not have to spend on the phone or at airline offices in remote destinations. Also, when an airline communicates the flights are sold out, our agents can access the system to verify the seats are actually sold out. (Often, it is a case of the airline not wanting to re-route for purposes of time or money.) The benefit of booking travel with an agent, paired with the ever important travel insurance, can truly make a difference. But most importantly, it is the value in customer service and advocacy that an air agent represents.

Tell us: What has been your worst airline experience?

Topics: Airlines

Allison Sodha

Written by Allison Sodha

As the President of Sodha Travel and author of Go! Girl Guides India, Allison has spent almost two decades exploring South Asia. She has a passion for creating experiences fueled by a deeper understanding of local communities.