Why I Will Not Fly US Airways Anymore

In the past I have been a good customer of US Airways. They are the only airline that flies to Hickory, North Carolina, the closest airport to my grandparents' home in Morganton, North Carolina. To take any other airline would be to make my grandfather drive to Asheville, which is farther away and requires driving through the mountains, a cold and icy drive around Christmas. So I've flown a lot on US Airways and been generally satisfied with their service. But for the past month I've been very angry at them.

You see, I visit my family twice a year, around Christmas and in the summer. This year, there was a New Year's party I wanted to attend near Tallahassee, Florida, so I planned my holiday visit for early January after the party. But my supposed ride from Tampa, Florida to the party had recently shown himself to not be the most reliable guy, and I was having trouble getting hold of him to confirm his plans for the trip. To cover all the bases, I reserved a ticket that I felt could work in multiple situations.

Suzanne's Planned Trip
January 2, 2002If I was in Tampa: fly from Tampa to Tallahassee, Tallahassee to Charlotte, North Carolina, Charlotte to Columbia, South Carolina, where my dad, step-mother, and siblings live.
If I was in Tallahassee: fly from Tallahassee to Charlotte, Charlotte to Columbia, just not using the first hop of the trip.
January 9, 2002Columbia to Charlotte, Charlotte to Hickory.
January 15, 2002Hickory to Charlotte, Charlotte to Jacksonville, Florida, Jacksonville to Tampa. (The stop in Jacksonville was only there because it was cheaper than a direct flight.)

I made the reservation for this Tampa-Columbia-Hickory-Tampa journey on December 4, 2001; it cost me $348.25. Then I waited and tried to find out what my ride's plans were: when he was going to Tallahassee, if he was coming back to Tampa on New Year's Day, etc. (Turns out he hadn't really made any firm plans.) On December 27, I found out that on December 28, we were going to leave for the six-hour drive to the beach house where the party was, and he wasn't going to come directly back to Tampa.

So on December 28, I called up US Airways to tell them I would not be using the Tampa-Tallahassee leg of my ticket. I only bothered to call them up because I knew that their policy was to cancel the rest of the ticket of anyone who didn't show up for their flight. Not wanting to be stuck without a space reserved on all these planes, I called the reservation line.

I expected to have a fee charged for making changes to my ticket, even though all I was doing was giving them a seat on the Tampa-Tallahassee flight to sell twice. I wasn't asking for any refund on this non-refundable ticket; I just wanted to use what I had already reserved, instead of having it canceled.

Instead of just grinning and bearing the $100 change fee charged for the five minutes a representative spent on the phone with me, I heard that the only way the airline would do the ticket was to cancel the entire ticket and re-book the portion of it that I wanted at $1219.50, the price of December 28 -- $871.25 more than what I had paid three weeks earlier. Never mind that I wasn't changing any of my flights but the one I wasn't going to use, to the airline it had to be a whole new ticket.

Unfortunately, my ride to the party was due in less than an hour, and I had already given my family the arrival times of my flights for the later parts of my trip. I didn't really have the time to go find any alternative transport, and since it was December 28 already, any new plane tickets would have cost about $1200 anyway. So I told the lady on the phone to go ahead and make the changes, but I asked for the address of their customer service department.

I wrote a letter to the customer service department. I also went on the US Airways web site and got the names of the CEO, the Senior Vice-President in Customer Service, the Executive Vice-President in charge of Customer Service, and the Vice-President in Charge of Customer Service for the South, and wrote letters to them all. The letters were largely the same: telling this story, pointing out how unethical it was of their company to essentially jack up the price on a ticket that had already been sold, and saying I was resolved not to fly with US Airways again.

The letter to the regular customer service department elicited a letter from a representative called Cheryl, which was very polite but seemed to think I was objecting to the change fee (which I wasn't, since I had expected it). The one sentence relating to my real complaint was:

"In addition because of the restrictions placed upon discounted tickets, based on the date and availability for your desired itinerary change, an additional fare amount may also be needed to conform to the applicable fares at that time."

Availability? My seats on all those flights were available -- I had already booked them! And there is no reason that my fare for seats I had already booked had to "conform" to the price charged on the day I made the change -- those weren't the flights I was changing!

The other four letters all seemed to reach the same person -- I hadn't figured the big shots read their own mail. This lady, whose first name was Ashley (I couldn't figure out her last name from the messages on the answering machine) called me while I was at work. When I called back, she gave me pretty much the same answer -- that making changes to my "nonrefundable" ticket was essentially the same as canceling it. She said they wouldn't refund the $871.25, but offered to send me a $200 travel voucher as a "good-will gesture." I accepted, figuring that I ought to get as much out of them as possible in return for the ridiculous amount they were charging me. Perhaps I can fly to Charlotte on some other airline and use the $200 to get a free trip to and from Hickory.

I also tried to dispute the additional $871.25 with Citibank MasterCard. (I have gone ahead and paid the $100 change fee, and I had already paid the $348.25, since it was on the previous month's bill which I paid before the trip.) CitiBank will not accept the disputation because the ticket was labeled as "nonrefundable." (But I didn't ask for a refund!)

So, I am going to report US Airways to the Better Business Bureau, and put this up on the Web for all to see. I refuse to give US Airways any more of my money, despite the fact that coming in through Asheville is less convenient when I visit my family. I shall find a charitable organization to donate my US Airways frequent flyer miles to, in the spirit of soaking US Airways for all the services possible without giving them any more of my money. This is perhaps not the most generous attitude possible, but the company's attitude is even less so. Think of this before you next fly US Airways.

Update 8 February 2002

Well, reporting them to the U.S. Department of Transportation was no help -- I got back this e-mail containing the same "justification" that the airline gave me.

From AirConsumer@ost.dot.gov Fri Feb  8 13:35:16 2002
Date: Fri, 8 Feb 2002 10:00:40 -0500 
From: "AirConsumer <DOT>" <AirConsumer@ost.dot.gov>
Subject: RE: US Airways complaint story

Ms. Saunders,

Thank you for your message. Air fares are determined by market demand and competition in specific city-pairs, rather than by mileage. Consequently, it is possible for the fare to a city upline of a passenger's true origin point (or beyond the passenger's destination) to be cheaper than the shorter flight that the passenger would actually like to take. In such circumstances, some passengers would prefer to book a flight to or from the more distant city that has a stop or connection at the intermediate city of their actual origin or destination point, thus obtaining the lower fare. The passenger would then board or deplane at the intermediate stop.

The airlines believe that they have a right to insist that passengers pay the appropriate fare for the passenger's actual itinerary. Consequently, when a passenger does not use one of the flights on his or her ticket, the carrier generally re-calculates the fare for this trip to charge the rates for the transportation actually used.

Another issue: airlines offer discount fares in an attempt to generate "discretionary" passengers. These are people who would not fly in the absence of the discount. In the view of the air carriers, discount fares designed to attract discretionary passengers are not serving this purpose when customers who would fly in any event are able to "divert" to the discount fare. To address this, airlines place restrictions on discount fares which the discretionary traveler can usually meet but which non-discretionary passengers generally cannot. One such restriction is a requirement to fly round trip, i.e. for the passenger to begin and end his or her trip at the same city. This restriction is designed to prevent non-discretionary personal (i.e., non-vacation) and business travelers, who are going to fly in any event, from using the lower fares that are designed to attract discretionary customers. These business and personal travelers are often interested in point-to-point itineraries rather than round trips. If they were able to buy a round trip ticket and then cancel the segments that they had no intention of flying, the round-trip restriction would be meaningless.

It has long been airline policy that passengers can change a restricted discount ticket upon paying a penalty of $100 plus any difference between the old and new fares. When a passenger's new itinerary still complies with all of the restrictions on the original fare (e.g., if the passenger changes the date of one of the flights but the new date is still midweek, still involves a stay over a Saturday night, and the change is being made prior to the applicable 7, 14 or 21-day advance-purchase deadline), then he or she will only pay the $100 penalty. However, if the passenger's new itinerary violates one of the restrictions on the passenger's fare (e.g., if the itinerary is no longer round trip, if the passenger's journey will now begin in a different city, or if the change is made after that fare's advance-purchase deadline), the carrier will recalculate the fare to charge the rate that applies to the passenger's new situation. In your case it appears that the applicable fare for your new itinerary was the relatively expensive full coach fare.

Domestic fares were deregulated by Congress a number of years ago. However, we have entered this complaint in our computerized industry monitoring system, and the carrier will be charged with the complaint in our monthly complaint report. This report is distributed to the industry and made available to the news media and the general public so that both consumers and airlines can compare carrier complaint records. It also serves as a basis for legislation and research.

Thank you for taking the time to contact us.

Aviation Consumer Protection Division
U.S. Department of Transportation

Yeah, that's consumer protection.

Home | Writing | Bio | Resources | Links

eXTReMe Tracker