Dear Triped Up,
I was ready to take the “trip of my life” for me, a $17,000 Antarctic expedition with Australia-based Aurora Expeditions. But when I tried to check in for my flight from Nashville to Santiago, Chile (via Miami), the check-in guy insisted that entry to Chile requires two forms that I had never heard of, even though I had carefully researched the requirements. I missed my plane and cruise. When I complained, American Airlines quickly (non-refundable) refunded the flight, but Aurora didn’t give me credit for a future cruise and my travel insurer denied my Trip Mate request. I want American to admit in writing that they made a mistake and use that to ask Aurora to think again and appeal to Trip Mate. can you help? Deborah, Franklin, Tenn.
I have good news for you: American will reimburse you for all the expenses of your cruise.
I have bad news for everyone else: Getting you refunded for the airline’s blatant incompetence was such a frustrating process, even for me, that I have little hope for the average consumer who suffers equally ridiculous mistakes in the future.
For starters, Trip Mate and Aurora could have been more understanding and even – although this was a bit of a stretch – humane. In an ideal world, American would immediately realize his mistake when typing, Trip Mate would approve your request for at least a portion of the cost of the cruise, and Aurora would make up for another piece at a sharp discount on a future cruise.
This is especially true given how responsible and persistent you were before, during and after your defeat.
You’ve researched the requirements for entry into Chile on Sherpa, a free website that helps with travel documents by accurately determining that a valid passport and proof of a Covid-19 vaccine are sufficient. When you were told differently at the airport, you argued your case, asked for a written explanation (and was denied), then went back to the airport to ask for such an explanation and wrote more than 25 emails to American with what you described to me. requesting a written statement to support your insurance claim and your loan claim from Aurora.
How could the original error have happened? My best guess is that the American agent confused the requirements to enter Chile as a whole with the much stricter documentation required to visit the country’s isolated Rapa Nui (also known as Easter Island). Then he grabbed his guns. So is American customer service: their responses were absolutely polite and utterly unhelpful. In a ridiculous e-mail you forwarded, an American representative was seen using random stereotypical language. “I’m glad we were able to host you,” he wrote, “I realize it’s not your preferred flight.”
Despite this, you have correctly claimed Trip Mate. They told you in a refusal email “The reason stated for your request is not covered by the travel cancellation provisions”. You also asked for a loan from Aurora, but they said you have to cancel 90 days in advance, not one.
I’m sorry not to point out your one mistake: You booked a multi-legged international flight arriving on the day your very expensive trip begins, which is a risky plan. But just because someone dangerously approaches the edge of a cliff doesn’t clear the person (or airline) who pushed them.
American began by refusing my request to interview a registered person, or even respond in writing to my list of questions. After a long commute, I finally got a brief statement from Jermaine Spight, the airline’s corporate communications director, who said it was “unfortunate” not being able to complete your trip and that the company had already reimbursed the airfare. “We are reviewing the additional documents submitted recently,” he continued, “and we hope to reach an amicable settlement soon.”
You then contacted an American representative who promised to contact me again in 18 to 21 days. It seemed to me that American was going to offer you something that was neither an admission of guilt nor the full value of the cruise.
Then I dived through a series of legal documents on American’s site to see what you would do if you turned down their offer and sued.
I knew from previous mind-boggling readings of airlines’ conditions of carriage that they made great efforts to limit their liability to the value of the airfare, regardless of the subsequent consequences. But not long enough, at least in America’s case.
Rule 25 of the 299-page General Rules of International Tariff limits American liability when refusing to board passengers for anything from traveling barefoot to having passengers “get disgusting upstairs” and having a diagnosed illness related to your condition. “when travel documents are not in order.” However, nowhere does it mention limited liability when they accidentally deny you boarding.
I showed this to American and drafted a column encouraging you to take the American to the trial court in Tennessee (and offer to be your witness). But before we publish it, Mr. Spight rewrote it with good news.
Wonderful. But this shouldn’t be your (or mine) fight. This kind of situation is exactly why we have travel insurance.
I asked Trip Mate to explain why your request was denied. A spokesperson, Patrick Jordan, told me via email that your plan only covers certain events called “hazards.”
“We understand and empathize that the insured’s travel has been adversely affected,” he wrote, “and the plan does not cover errors made in identifying travel documents.”
I begged you not to agree, stating that your policy covers travel delays caused by common carriers, “including, but not limited to, scheduled departure and return times and actual departure and return times.” The phrase “but not limited to” implies to me that events such as being accidentally dropped from a flight or being mistakenly told, for example, by a rookie agent in Nashville, that you cannot board a plane bound for Chile, also qualify as potential “hazards.”
I told Trip Mate and they blinked slightly. “In any request submitted,” Mr. Jordan wrote, “we look at the situation holistically to see where we can apply the benefits within the confines of private policy.” However, the policy limits the refund for “travel delays” to $3,000.
What about Aurora? Aurora spokesperson Cameron Ward said they were “deeply sorry you couldn’t come”. “Unfortunately, there are always a lot of travel incidents. That’s why we require all our guests to have travel insurance that provides full coverage for any number of issues that may arise.”
Fair enough, but I think Aurora was in a good position to be generous (and get some good PR points). Finding a way to get you on a cruise in the future at a nice discount—perhaps if you buy a ship that isn’t expected to fill up—would cost them a lot less than $17,000. They declined to comment when I made such a suggestion.
Which brings me to how I feel about customer service in the travel industry as we head into 2023. After carefully reviewing this paper’s policy on the use of profanity, I refuse to comment.
If you need advice on the best planned itinerary that went wrong, Send an email to [email protected] .
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