When both sides are mad as hell, who should pay?

“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Paddy Chayefsky wrote it, William Holden voiced it and Steve Slater acted it out recently.

311_airplane (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Paddy Chayefsky wrote it, William Holden voiced it and Steve Slater acted it out recently. Ironically the tagline of the Academy Award winning movie Network, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” was not vocalized by Steve Slater as he ranted over the Public Address system on the Jet Blue plane.
Unleashing a slew of profanity directed primarily at the passenger who simply refused to stay in her seat until the plane came to a complete halt, the beleaguered flight attendant announced he was quitting his job and pulled the emergency chute to the tarmac. He’s being charged with a slew of crimes and is actually reconsidering his rash decision to end his career so dramatically. His future remains, well, up in the air.
Moshe Krakow’s destiny is far less cloudy. Moshe has a problem which is a rather serious one similar to agoraphobia.
His desire to avoid crowds manifests itself only at 30,000 feet and can only be mollified if he’s sitting in a window seat. Not any window seat, but on the left side in the front cabin. Unfortunately with family in South America, he’s frequently forced to fly from Israel to Buenos Aires and battle his demons. Moreover, since too often his vaunted window seat has not been available, he has constantly changed travel agencies.
Finally he found an agent who seemed to answer his needs. Polite, attentive, Yoram managed for several years and many flights to placate Moshe. In fact Yoram was so eager to please his client that when Moshe asked if he could delay payment until he returned from his trip, Yoram acquiesced. Now Moshe was not a wealthy man; quite the contrary, he worked hard for his money and constantly chose the least expensive airline with the most restrictive conditions. In fact Yoram testified that Moshe was most emphatic about saving money as a precursor before issuing any ticket. But I digress...
It was a lovely spring day merely two years ago when Moshe started out on Iberia Airlines flying via Madrid to Buenos Aires. His glatt kosher meal and his window seat that Yoram had reserved were once again blessedly honored by the airline.
It was a few days prior to his return from Argentina that the law of averages presented itself. Moshe had to change his return flight; his mother was hospitalized and he needed to remain an extra 24 hours. Pleading with Yoram to use his influence with Iberia to waive the change fee, Moshe emphasized that he must have his window seat. Yoram did his best, not just getting Iberia to waive the large change fee, but finding him a seat that would get him back here before Shabbat commenced.
His special meal and seat requests were communicated to Iberia.
If you build it they will come, and Juan Pistarani, as vice president of Argentina, was the driving force to build the airport and was honored by having it named after him.
The good minister though would have been in shock to see what havoc an enraged passenger can cause. For when Moshe arrived at the Iberia counter, sleep deprived and a bit dishevelled, he was told that a window seat in the front cabin was not available.
Ranting and raving, he called Yoram collect demanding that he “fix” the problem forthwith. Taking an uncanny leaf from the movie Network, Moshe professed that he was furious and would not take it anymore. Airport security was less than impressed with his performance.
Yoram calmly explained to Moshe that as his flight had been changed just one day earlier, and there was nothing to be done.
Moshe, already heavily medicated due to his phobia, according to his testimony, called his doctor who advised him to take a second dosage and get on the plane. Iberia personnel proffered him a glass of water; the pill was downed and Moshe made his way to his window seat near the back of the plane. Transferring in Madrid, Moshe and his luggage landed in Israel where he collapsed into bed.
In fact so traumatic was the trip that Moshe informed Yoram he would not pay him for it. Moshe was emphatic that his $1,700 ticket to Buenos Aires meant that his window seat request must be honored. As Moshe pointed out, it was an issue of honor. While he very much appreciated all that Yoram had done, the fact he couldn’t secure him a window seat in the front cabin alleviated Moshe from the responsibility to pay him.
HERE’S WHERE your humble columnist enters the story.
A company cannot sue a passenger in small claims court like a passenger may sue an airline or a travel agency.
Yoram’s company had no choice but to sue Moshe Krakow. Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, Moshe struck back with a suit asking for $10,000 in damages due to the emotional duress he endured. Realizing a lengthy law suit would only benefit the lawyers, it was agreed to enter mediation.
At the mediation hearing, adjudicated by a retired judge, both sides sat along a long conference table.
Moshe initiated proceedings, apologizing profusely for the two-year delay by explaining that the mere thought of reliving the harrowing experience had forced him into repeated relapses.
The lawyers began their statements, pontificating on the legal ramifications and citing complex rules and regulations to strengthen their case. Both Moshe and Yoram reiterated the facts of the case and finally after 90 minutes, the wizened judge asked the simple question, “Who is responsible when the client requests a seat and the travel agent ‘promises’ him it will be done?” Literally dumbstruck at the enquiry, I took the opportunity to point out the obvious. Not only is the travel agent a conduit for both the client and the airline, meals and seat requests are simply that – REQUESTS.
The allegedly learned judge came back with the witty retort; “Surely if you pay that much for a ticket your seat is guaranteed?” It was at this stage that I looked for a hidden camera as I couldn’t believe the idiocy of his question. Politely pointing out that tickets to South America are not inexpensive and that $1,700 is an economy class ticket, I reiterated, once more, that even in first class an exact seat number cannot be guaranteed. Airlines change equipment; sometimes configuration; perhaps a couple made a late booking and desired to sit next to each other.
Airlines cajole passengers these days to do web check-in to lock in their seat requests; still even that is no guarantee that the request will be honored. And to add insult to injury, it is never the legal responsibility of the travel agent if said seat is not available.
A wry grin spread across the judge’s face; and I’ll never know whether he had asked the question to see if he could crack my polite facade, but he ruled that the passenger must make payment in full.
Moshe simply asked that Yoram apologize that he hadn’t been able to secure the seat; Yoram was happy to comply.
But while the law in this case did come through in the end, Moshe’s feeble desire to avoid payment left a bitter taste. It still does... Moshe’s condition has left him unable to pay; he claims it’s too traumatic to write a check.
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem.
For questions and comments email him at mark.feldman@ ziontours.co.il