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COMPLAINT: Cancelled flight; no notice, no protection; incoherent "Customer Care" response

 
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  #1  
Old Feb 7, 2009, 5:25 AM
Debra Thomas Debra Thomas is offline
 
Join Date: Feb 2009
Posts: 2

Last March, I bought a ticket to fly from Denver to Ft. Meyers, Florida for Christmas. I booked the ticket on CheapTickets. It included three segments on United (two of which were code-shared with USAir) and one on Continental. My credit card bill showed United billed for the ticket ($592.80), with a separate charge ($4.99) for CheapTickets.

In the months following, I received a few itinerary changes from CheapTickets and United, all for minor time changes for the United flights. One or two involved new flight numbers; each time I called United for new seat assignments. I received an email confirmation of the entire itinerary from United on August 9 and an e-ticket receipt from United for all four flight segments issued on September 21. In October, CheapTickets sent two more change notices for the United flights, with no change to the Continental leg.

On December 18, 48 hours before departure, I received a notice from CheapTickets of another unspecified itinerary change. I immediately called CheapTickets, and after some confusion on their end, they discovered that the Continental flight had been cancelled. CheapTickets contacted the airlines and told me neither Continental nor United would "protect" me, and CheapTickets wouldn't do anything to get me to my destination, either. So two days before my trip -- on one of the busiest travel weekends of the year -- a ticket I'd bought nine months earlier was useless and my trip cancelled.

I spent more than six hours on the phone (mostly on hold) with United, Continental and CheapTickets. I discovered that the Continental flight actually had been cancelled on August 9. Continental claimed they'd notified United at the time. No one could explain why United sent me a written confirmation of the original Continental flight the day it was cancelled and again the following month, or why it took them more than three months to notify me of the cancellation. Continental said they couldn't offer an alternative flight because they no longer served that route. Even though United had issued the ticket, they wouldn't reroute me because the cancelled segment was on Continental. United found flights to get me to my destination, but only if I paid an additional $1600. The only alternative they offered was to refund the price of the original ticket, which I had no choice but to accept.

I was incredibly frustrated and angry. I contacted United's "Customer Care" group about the last minute cancellation notice and United's refusal to reroute me to my destination. The reply was somewhat incoherent, much in broken English, and included an apparent "stock" response to itinerary change complaints. "We do our best to minimize schedule changes but when they do occur, we arrange for your alternate flights as close as possible to your original itinerary. I am sorry your itinerary was not satisfactory for you…and look forward to your future travel with United." Since this didn't address my situation, I sent a clarification and received another jumbled response. Finally, I asked to be put in touch with a supervisor. The rep refused, citing "policy reasons beyond our reach."

I contacted United's local office in Denver. Their response addressed the details of my situation and was much more coherent, but they still wouldn't take responsibility. United blamed CheapTickets for not notifying me of the Continental cancellation and said "United could only protect you from Denver to Ft. Meyers on Continental because of the way the fare was calculated point to point. In order to change your routing, this would have required a refund of the original ticket and to start over." I don't understand how United can issue a ticket that includes a segment on another carrier, collect the fare, incorrectly confirm that segment even after it's been cancelled, fail to notify the passenger of the itinerary change for more than three months -- yet takes no responsibility to protect the passenger for that itinerary.
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  #2  
Old Feb 7, 2009, 7:52 AM
jimworcs jimworcs is offline
 
Join Date: Jan 2008
Location: Shropshire, England
Posts: 3,197

Scandalous, go the DOT, but I would take a much harder line on CheapTickets. They sold you the tickets and should have taken responsibility to get you to where you wanted to go. I would consider suing them in small claims.
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  #3  
Old Feb 7, 2009, 2:09 PM
PHXFlyer PHXFlyer is offline
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Posts: 1,366

Jim is right. Cheaptickets.com should have been your sole point of contact as they acted as agent even though the ticket was issued on United ticket stock. Here's why.

When a travel agency (which Cheaptickets.com is an online travel agency) issues a ticket on multiple airlines two things happen. First, the agency decides which "ticket stock" to issue the tickets on. This term goes back to the days of paper tickets and e-tickets work essentially the same way but for accounting reasons the money paid for the entire ticket must all go to one entity and then as you travel each airline on the itinerary is paid out of those funds by the issuing carrier. Usually on a domestic ticket the ticket is issued on the stock of the first airline who transports you on your itinerary.

The record of this itinerary along with your contact information (e-mail address and telephone number) is maintained in the various airline's reservations systems on what's called a PNR or Passenger Name Record. (There's an excellent overview of this process on Wikipedia.) In your case there were four PNRs - the original or Master PNR created and maintained by Cheaptickets.com and one each maintained by United, US Airways (for the codeshare flights) and Continental. As schedule changes or flight cancellations are made by each airline involved on an itinerary, those changes are communicated back to the Master PNR. Since the Master PNR was from a travel agency in the event of a complete cancellation where that airline no longer serves the destination the airline will send notification back to the agency and it is up to that agency to notify the passenger and to make changes in order to secure space on another airline.

So as you can see (I hope) United was the airline your tickets were issued on and they were holding the funds until you actually used that ticket. As you traveled the portions on US Airways and Continental each of those airlines would have submitted to United for payment of their portion. United was probably not even aware of the cancellation of the Continental segment until you called them because Continental would have notified Cheaptickets.com and it was up to them to re-book you, not United. Even if the segment affected a United or US airways flight (part of a connection) they were under no obligation to do anything about it as it must be resolved between Cheaptickets.com and Continental.

Cheaptickets.com is owned by Orbitz. Their company headquarters is in Chicago, IL:

Orbitz Worldwide, Inc.
500 W. Madison
Chicago, Illinois 60661

Phone: 312-894-5000
Fax: 312-894-5001

Since they ae not a "brick and mortar" travel agency it's your call as to how you proceed from here. You can file a complaint with your local Better Business Bureau or the BBB of Chicago, IL:

BBB Headquarters
330 N Wabash Avenue Suite #2006 Chicago, IL 60611

Phone: (312) 832-0500
Fax: (312) 832-9985

Jim mentioned filing in small claims court however from your account the ticket was refunded and you did not mention purchasing another ticket so without any real monetary loss you are somewhat limited in that regard. You might consider contacting the offices of the Colorado Attorney General. They have a consimer protection department and you can file a complaint online at the link I provided or in writing at:

Office of the Attorney General
Consumer Protection Section
1525 Sherman Street, 7th floor
Denver, CO 80203

Phone 1-800-222-4444
Fax 303-866-4916

There are links on that website to the BBBs in Coloado as well. Good luck!
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  #4  
Old Feb 8, 2009, 2:26 AM
Debra Thomas Debra Thomas is offline
 
Join Date: Feb 2009
Posts: 2

JimWorcs and PHXFlyr for your comments. I'd just assumed that Continental and/or United would have the most responsibility for getting me to my destination and guess I let CheapTickets off the hook a bit too easily! I sent their customer service department a message and they've asked me to call -- so we'll see where that goes. If that doesn't work, my next stop is the DOT and BBB.

PHXFlyr -- I REALLY appreciate all the detail you provided. Learned quite a bit from you -- and thank you for taking the time to provide so much good information. This is the first time I've posted on a site like this and now understand why they're so popular.

One lesson I've learned through all this -- from now on, I'm going to buy tickets directly from the airline!
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Old Feb 8, 2009, 3:47 PM
PHXFlyer PHXFlyer is offline
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Join Date: Dec 2008
Posts: 1,366

Originally Posted by Debra Thomas View Post
JimWorcs and PHXFlyr for your comments. I'd just assumed that Continental and/or United would have the most responsibility for getting me to my destination and guess I let CheapTickets off the hook a bit too easily! I sent their customer service department a message and they've asked me to call -- so we'll see where that goes. If that doesn't work, my next stop is the DOT and BBB.

PHXFlyr -- I REALLY appreciate all the detail you provided. Learned quite a bit from you -- and thank you for taking the time to provide so much good information. This is the first time I've posted on a site like this and now understand why they're so popular.

One lesson I've learned through all this -- from now on, I'm going to buy tickets directly from the airline!
Thanks for your kind words. One more piece of advice. Don't waste your time with the DOT. They have absolutely nothing to do with travel agencies.
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