Not every case that crosses my desk is solvable. But nearly every unsolvable case, it seems, involves an airline. It’s almost as if the carriers have hired my two-year-old son, Aren, to handle customer service. His favorite words are “no, no, no.” Here are two recent standouts:
Rules don’t apply to Northwest
Q: Two years ago my husband and I received two $200 gift certificates for Northwest Airlines from my sister-in-law. We tried to use them several times but were often able to find cheaper fares on other airlines.
When we tried to use them once again last month, we found out they expire one year from date of purchase. We tried to contact Northwest to see if we could get an extension since it was so close to the expiration date which was impossible. We sent an e-mail to the airline but received a canned response.
I understand there is an expiration date on the gift certificates, but I did some research and found that there are laws in almost every state that would require Northwest or any other business taking unclaimed money (within a certain period) from gift certificates to report the earnings to the state. The state then is entitled to the money and returns the funds to the owner if the owner comes forward to claim it.
Our gift certificate was purchased in Missouri, a state that has these laws in place. So how can Northwest just keep our money?
— Emily Boynton
A: Nice try, but I’m afraid your money’s gone.
I checked with Northwest, and it says the law doesn’t apply to its gift certificates. Section 105 of the Airline Deregulation Act expressly preempts state law claims that “relate to a price, route, or service of an air carrier,” according to the carrier’s legal department.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted this provision broadly to inhibit enforcement of any state law that would have the effect of regulating, or otherwise limiting, the manner in which airlines market their services,” says spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch. “Consequently, state gift certificate laws, to the extent states attempt to enforce them against airlines, contravene the Airline Deregulation Act.”
Next time, use the certificate before the expiration date. And note to Northwest: If they lift child labor laws, you might want to consider hiring my son.
No change on US Airways change fee
Q: I bought airline tickets online directly from US Airways Web site and Alaska Airlines Web site to go from Buffalo, NY, to Lewiston, ID. The day before my flight left, I received a call from Alaska Airlines saying that my flight had been cancelled and that I’d been rebooked on the next flight.
I had to call US Airways to change my flight out of Seattle into Buffalo since I would not get there in time to catch my original flight. I had to pay a $100 change fee for each ticket, for a total of $200. But when I went to the airport the next day, the flight was cancelled again. US Airways again charged me $100 per ticket.
US Airways said since my entire flight was not on one itinerary they had to charge a fee for each change. I had the people speak to the supervisor each time, especially the second time since I had just paid the $200 for the first change only 14 hours earlier, but they didn’t care and said they had to charge me.
I didn’t have the money to pay it. Luckily, my father had enough on a credit card to pay these fees, otherwise I would have been stuck with no way home. Is there any way to get and change fees paid out refunded to me?
— Summer Kibbe
Alaska Airlines said a refund wouldn’t be up to it, because it didn’t collect $400 from you.
I asked US Airways to look into your case, and got a similar response. According to airline spokeswoman Amy Kudwa, you booked one itinerary on two separate airlines, so the flights were “treated independently.”
Result? You weren’t “given the benefit of airlines working together for the advantage of their mutual customer when cancellations occur,” says Kudwa.
If you’d booked a so-called “interline” ticket – which can be booked through a travel professional or on an on-line travel site – then both airlines would have been aware of the other segments involved in your trip. In other words, no $400 in cancellation fees.
I checked with one of my sources inside US Airways, and he said that while the airline is technically correct, it isn’t right. A compassionate manager should have seen your itinerary and realized that you didn’t know any better (I mean, are we really expected to know about “interlining”?) and then waived the change fees.
Next time, use a travel agent. And note to US Airways: Aren is available for consulting work, if you’re interested.