A mandatory ticket fee


Q: I recently had a less than great experience with Orbitz. I purchased three tickets to Hawaii on Northwest Airlines through the site. But while the order was being processing, a notice popped up that these tickets had to be issued as paper tickets and as result would necessitate a $20 delivery fee via either courier or FedEx.

Four days later I received my tickets for Hawaii – delivered by regular mail.

I called Orbitz and asked how they could justify the $20 charge and was told that the fee had been disclosed. I agreed, but said it had been misrepresented as being a genuine cost Orbitz was incurring for delivering the tickets and that I thought it was simply finding another way to extract another fee. Her response was that no, Orbitz kept no part of the money, but rather that they were being charged by the airline for issuing paper tickets.

Can you help me understand these fees? How do I know that I actually needed a paper ticket and that this wasn’t a clever way for Orbitz or the airline to extract another $20? Does Orbitz actually keep the $20 or is it something they have to pass along to the airline? What recourse do I have?

— Perry Atkins

A: Orbitz isn’t the only online agency now charging a fee for paper tickets, but after reading your letter I’m a little confused about its policy, too. When do I need a paper ticket? How much will I be charged? Who gets the money?

I asked Orbitz to explain. It said you needed a paper ticket because you’re on what’s known as a “code-share” flight – specifically, a Northwest Airlines flight operated by Hawaiian Airlines. Since neither of the airlines have e-ticket capabilities between one another, you would have needed a paper ticket regardless of where you booked from.

The customer service representative you spoke with was wrong. Orbitz keeps what it calls the “processing/handling” fee. According to company spokeswoman Terri Shank, it goes to “pay the staff required to package and process the paper tickets, and covers the machinery, the software and the delivery cost.”

Here’s where it gets a little fuzzy. Recently, Orbitz decided to offer mail delivery to customers booking more than 21 days in advance, which is why your ticket landed in your mailbox instead of on your doorstep. Orbitz will start offering the less expensive mail delivery option soon – although in your case, you weren’t given a choice.

Orbitz refunded you the $20 ticket fee. It also wrote you a letter expressing its “concern” over the way your incident was handled, and offered you a $100 voucher for future travel.

Crediting you the $20 is appropriate, and so is addressing the ticketing options issue. But a $100 voucher is a little over-the-top, and you seem to agree. You accepted the fee refund, but turned down the voucher. I would have probably done the same.

It’s difficult to avoid these surcharges, because there’s often little or no disclosure of them until you get ready to book. By then, you’ve already decided to make your purchase, so you have to just live with the added fee. That’s unfair.

Although it is nice of Orbitz to offer a cheaper delivery method for paper tickets, the site ought to consider including the cost of issuing a paper ticket as part of the fares it quotes. By tacking on a paper-ticket surcharge, it is artificially lowering the price of its ticket, which ultimately will lead to many more disappointed customers.