Airline Woes

Airline Woes

Changing a name of your airline ticket is not easy.

In my long list of travel absurdities, changing airline tickets ranks right up there at the top. It’s difficult to do even when you have a fully refundable ticket. The volumes of rules confuse even the most senior of airline employees, and above all, it proves my contention that the airline industry requires massive new government regulation.

Like everything else in the ridiculously volatile deregulated airline industry, changing a ticket is a lot easier in good times than it is bad. Because when the airline industry is doing well, it’s flush with cash, its employees are happy, and airline employees are empowered to do most anything they want with any customer. So long as an employee has the password code to a certain level of authority, he can alter or adjust a passenger record virtually in any way. So in good times when everyone feels properly compensated and secure, generosity rules. Forget about the rules. Just talk to a happy person.

But in bad times, beware! When staff has been cut, when the person who finally answers your call is doing double duty with no overtime pay, they aren’t likely to be generous to what they can believe is the very cause of their own misery: you… or the lack of enough of “you.” And even more onerously, the executives trying to squeeze every penny they can out of a hostile market write new rules on top of old rules until the whole mess is so damn convoluted, that you’ll probably be charged just for starting the phone call.

This has nothing to do with fairness or logic. It has to do with survival. If you bought a ticket and the airline has your money, by God don’t disturb them for anything or you’re going to pay!

Recently, we ticketed a family of five traveling from Los Angeles to Nairobi, via London, on British Airways. British Airways is one of the giants in the market, no better or worse than any of the other big guys, and it provides a good example of what would likely happen no matter which big airline company was involved.

The family wanted to fly first class. Hold onto your hats when you hear the prices that are involved, but I felt it important to use this example, because these are the airlines’ most revered customers, to be sure. An unrestricted first class ticket averages about 15-20 times the cost of the least expensive ticket available. Looking at it another way, for every first class ticket the airline sells it has to sell 15-20 regular tickets to get the same revenue.

For this single sale family of five, the combined revenue equaled about a third of the entire backside economy section of the airplane.

But because the airlines have become so immersed in their own complicated rule-making directed mostly at getting every last penny they can out of the vast majority of their penny-pinching back cabin customers (of which I am proudly one), this family got pretty screwed. British Airways got a black eye and probably lost important future business, and the destructive cycle continued.

Admittedly, it was the mother’s fault to begin with. She had changed her name, and thus, her passport. But she gave us a copy of the passport with the old name. It was a photocopy she had on file before the actual passport had had “CANCELED” written across the first page and a triangular portion cut out of the entire book. So one of the five original tickets for the family was written with a name that no longer existed.

Innocent error, right? In the old days it was easily remedied. Just call anyone – anyone, from a phone agent to a sales rep, and with no more than a simple if embarrassed explanation, nobody wanted to have a $17,000 airline ticket written for someone who didn’t exist. Get a live body associated with that coupon! And sorry to put you through that anxiety, ma’am. Don’t worry. What’s your new name? Great! Click. It’s fixed.

That was 30 years ago. When airlines were fun to fly, when employees were well educated and polite, aircraft were safe and spacious, and being up there with the clouds really felt sublime. Twenty years ago when the industry was just deregulated, things were a bit more difficult, but a name change “if properly documented” was no problem provided you weren’t flying Braniff, Ozark or any of the other airlines about to bite the dust because of deregulation. Ten years ago, as security problems were besetting so much of the world, “proper documentation” became laborious.

This laborious documentation – now created by the airlines – costs money to create, so there is now a $20 name change fee. That is one-twentieth of one percent of the cost of the airline ticket. It doesn’t exactly impose financial difficulties on the ticket holder, and it isn’t going to save British Airways from default. So why do it? The reason is sneaky.

It isn’t really a “name change.” The consumer signed laborious documentation acknowledges the absurd new rules: cancel the old ticket for no one who exists, request a refund for everything that was paid less the $20 fee, but immediately buy a new ticket with your real name or risk losing the seat. Hmm. The refund might take a while for that non-existent person. Buying the new ticket must be instantaneous or the airline will give your seat away to the next buyer who comes along before you. So debit your credit card, again, for the same seat. You can’t use the refund, because that’s going to take a while. Doesn’t matter that there will in the interim before the old ticket is refunded, be two bodies technically given the same seat on the same aircraft. And that British Airways will be holding $34,000 for one $17,000 seat. The refund has to be “examined.” No examining needed to buy the duplicate ticket, but British Airways has to personally and not through any contracted bank, credit card service or airline consortium, refund the money. Maybe, it’s a fraud! How long might this take? Oh, can’t say for sure. A week. Ten days. Two months. All depends upon how fast someone gets to it.

All depends upon how happy the employees are; whether we’re in a good time or a bad one. Well, at the moment we’re in a bad one, and British Airways is doing everything in their power to make it much, much worse.