The Travel Adviser: A real-life horror story - and how to avoid your own

Airlines' misbehavior can sometimes be shocking. Israel's lack of consumer protection doesn't help.

September 29, 2007 23:40
4 minute read.
The Travel Adviser: A real-life horror story - and how to avoid your own

Ben Gurion 248.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

The story you're about to read is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent. (Well, not that of the airline involved. The company's callousness deserves all the attention it gets.) A young couple with a small child and one more on the way were planning a trip to Manchester, England, months in advance. Not wanting to take a charter via London, they chose, seemingly wisely, to fly via Amsterdam on KLM. Finding wonderful connections, they booked three months in advance. Let me reiterate that last part: They didn't just make a reservation, they actually purchased their tickets. Our travel agency was, of course, happy to help. Time passed, and the day before the family was scheduled to fly, a notice appeared on our reservation system. The flights had been cancelled. Not overly alarmed, the couple's intrepid travel consultant sent them an email asking to which flight they'd been transferred and how much compensation they'd received. Kind reader, you already know what comes next. The passengers called our travel agency in hysterics; they hadn't heard a word from the airline about the cancelled flight. We called KLM immediately, and airline representatives confirmed what had been suspected. The company's reservation center in New Delhi had decided to bump and rebook these three passengers, along with 30 other ticketed customers, because their original flight was overbooked. Asked for details about the flight to which the family had been transferred, the KLM rep coolly explained that the passengers were now flying Alitalia to Rome, and then Air France to Paris. Less calm than he'd previously been, the travel agent pointed out that the family's destination was Manchester. The KLM agent's response: "We'll arrange an overnight stay in Paris, and they can continue the next morning to Manchester." Seemingly oblivious to the fact that she had just converted a simple one-stop ticket to three flights plus a night in Paris, the reservation clerk sounded overjoyed by her solution. When the client was informed of KLM' s response, he responded as might be expected, insisting that this type of treatment was simply not acceptable. He was not impressed by KLM's second offer, which would allow him to cancel his family's tickets - purchased three months earlier! - without incurring a cancellation fee. When it was pointed out that there was space on alternative carriers, KLM's tepid response was that the airline could only reroute its customers on one of the airline's commercial partners. When we asked what compensation the clients would receive for being bumped, KLM said the family should write a letter of complaint. IN MY 25 years of experience in the travel industry, I have simply never encountered such arrogance. While the KLM office in Israel was sympathetic, its hands were seemingly tied, and the representative could apparently do little but keep blaming the situation on the New Delhi reservation center. Remember: the clients hadn't even been informed of the change to their flights. If my agency didn't track our clients' flights, the family would have shown up at the airport with no idea what awaited it. Feeling powerless to solve the situation with KLM, we made new reservations for the family: a flight through Prague on Czech Air at a time close to the original KLM itinerary. We beseeched Czech Air to accept the KLM tickets and finally called KLM's corporate headquarters in Amsterdam to get the switch approved. So 10 hours after the nightmare erupted, the problem was solved. Gingerly, we asked again about compensation from KLM, only to be told that the airline wasn't legally required to compensate passengers flying out of Israel. Having learned a serious lesson about KLM, we then contacted the European Union, which informed us that when a passenger is bumped from an airline due to overbooking, he or she is entitled to receive €250 in cash. Not credit toward some future flight, but cash. Our clients, in the end, will receive €750 for their experience. The fiasco behind them, it can now be said that the clients, perversely, were actually lucky they'd gotten mistreated by a European airline, and not by an Israeli air carrier. The concept of "passenger rights" hasn't yet made it to Israel's airlines: Were El Al, Arkia, Israir or Sun D'or to bump you, there is no official guideline for compensation. We are not talking about being bumped due to poor weather - we're talking about man-made problems like computer systems that fail to indicate when a flight has been overbooked. Many clients are aware that this can happen, and some even purchase tickets for peak periods just to be offered compensation if they're bumped. The last week in August, for example, is usually a period filled with overbookings, and airlines are often forced to scramble - and offer money - to persuade passengers to take another flight. Sometimes, the process can begin to look like an auction, with airlines increasing the compensation they're offering to get passengers to change flights. But in general, overbooking causes major inconvenience, and it isn't clear why the Transportation Ministry, along with the Tourism Ministry, hasn't yet lobbied for legislation on the subject in the Knesset. Why should the consumer be forced to put up with shoddy treatment, unprotected by EU-style guidelines? This lack of legal recourse is a problem, unfortunately, which has yet to be fixed. El Al may ask for volunteers, but the amount of compensation it pays is determined solely by the airline. And as the KLM story demonstrates, the situation allows even European airlines operating out of Israel to act - at least until they're called on it - as though they don't need to pay bumped Israeli passengers their due. Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at [email protected]

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