A week of volunteering in Kenya nosedives because of air ticket error

When Kristina Aubert tries to check in for a flight, she finds that her name is misspelled on her air ticket, costing her a week of volunteering as a nurse in Kenya. Are her travel expenses gone forever? Or can our own volunteers help her recover them?

Question: I’m a student nurse. This winter, I was excited for the opportunity to be a volunteer nurse in Kenya on my spring break through an organization called Love Volunteers. I worked during my two weeks of winter break to save $800 for a round-trip ticket on Air Canada, which I booked through the travel website eDreams, and $500 for Love Volunteers registration fees. I also paid $50 for a travel insurance policy with Allianz.

My flight from Chicago to Nairobi, Kenya, via Toronto and Frankfurt, Germany, was scheduled to depart on a Saturday at 8 a.m. Since I was traveling overseas, I arrived at the airport at 6 a.m. with more than enough time to check in. When I went to the kiosk to print my boarding pass, I was instructed to go to a check-in desk as there were difficulties printing my pass. At the check-in desk, I was informed that I could not get on my flight because eDreams had printed my name as “KRISTINAAUBERT KRISTINAAUBERT” on my boarding pass, which did not match my passport.

I was then instructed to call eDreams and see if it could fix the spelling on my boarding pass. When I called eDreams, I was told that its booking department staff wouldn’t be in until Monday and I would need to call back then. EDreams’ agent told me that it could change the name on my boarding pass on Monday, for a change fee of more than $500.

I could not rebook my flight on that Monday as I wouldn’t get into Kenya until Wednesday and I would need to return the following Saturday at the end of my spring break. I told eDreams’ agent that I would not be rebooking my flight and requested a refund. Although I booked a nonrefundable ticket, I thought eDreams would allow an exception given that it was responsible for the boarding pass error. But I was wrong.

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EDreams’ agent told me that it would not refund my airfare, but it would graciously waive my flight cancellation fee. I sent numerous emails to eDreams’ customer service and filed claims against the company. All it would do for me was refund me $115 in airport taxes. I was out nearly $700.

I reached out to Love Volunteers in hopes of receiving my registration fees back, but I was informed that it does not refund fees due to travel mishaps. I was out another $500.

Then I filed a claim on my Allianz travel insurance policy. Two weeks later, I received an email from Allianz explaining that its travel insurance contains “fine print” indicating that it does not cover misspelled names on boarding passes. I’m still trying to figure out what exactly travel insurance is good for if it cannot cover something like this.

I do not understand how a company error like this put me out nearly $1,200. Could you help me? — Kristina Aubert, Chicago, Ill.

Answer: What a sad spring break for you — not to mention the people in Kenya who could have benefited from your nursing skills.

But what’s truly unfortunate is that while eDreams and Love Volunteers bear some responsibility for what happened to you, so do you.

You’re correct that eDreams should have issued your ticket with your name spelled correctly. And a $500 change fee is exorbitant!

But it was your responsibility to make sure that your tickets were booked in the same name that appears on your passport. Apparently, your name error was caused by a glitch in eDreams’ website when you booked the ticket. Had you reviewed your flight information before clicking the “Purchase” button on eDreams’ site, you might have caught this error.

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Even if that wasn’t possible, you should have done so on receiving your flight confirmation email and immediately notified eDreams of the problem, so that eDreams could fix it and issue you a new ticket in advance of your departure day.

And, of course, you were not due a cash refund for a nonrefundable ticket. EDreams’ terms and conditions indicate that “Refunds are processed according to the Refund Policies of the Travel Supplier(s) concerned.”

Air Canada’s International Tariff indicates that for unused tickets:

For nonrefundable tickets, the unused value may be used toward the purchase of another ticket within a year from date of issue if ticket is fully unused or from first departure date for partially used ticket, subject to any fee or penalty contained in applicable fare rules and subject to customer cancelling the booking prior to departure.

But that’s only useful to you if you could reuse the value of your ticket within a year. If that’s not the case, then, unfortunately, the cost of your ticket is gone.

Air Canada’s International Tariff also provides that:

As a result of the United States Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) secure flight program, Air Canada requires all passengers flying to, from, via or over the United States, for non-domestic flights, to provide the following secure flight information at time of booking:
a) Full name as it appears on the passport (mandatory);
b) Date of birth (mandatory);
c) Gender (mandatory);
d) Redress number (optional, if applicable).

Failure to provide secure flight information at time of booking may result in the booking being canceled. No compensation will be given for bookings cancelled as a result of failure to provide secure flight information on time, but cancelled bookings may be refunded subject to applicable fare rule.

So, Air Canada exempts itself from liability for not allowing you to fly because of the name error on your ticket. And, unfortunately, Allianz is not going to waive its policy terms for you. Insurance companies rarely, if ever, pay claims that are excluded from coverage in their policy terms — no matter how fine the print.

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But Love Volunteers’ response was the most disappointing. A volunteer coordinator responded to you that it will not assume any responsibility for errors by another company, and that because you canceled your trip with so little notice, there’s nothing it can do for you. It may not be responsible for helping you with a refund of your airfares, but it should have refunded the $500 registration fee, given that you were not able to volunteer with its organization. Sticking to the letter of its policies and refusing to refund the registration fee to you was really not cool.

Our response team reached out to eDreams on your behalf, although we were not hopeful of securing any helpful response. But eDreams, “given [this] rare instance of human error,” apologized for the error, agreed to process a refund of $564 to you for your airfares, less the taxes that you had already been refunded, and offered you an additional compensation voucher as a gesture of goodwill.

We also reached out to Love Volunteers, which is not willing to issue you a refund for your registration fee but will allow you to apply it to another placement until March 2018. However, you responded, “After this experience, why would they expect me to wish to plan another trip with them?… I will never plan any volunteer trip or recommend any future volunteers to this organization.”

Unfortunately, that’s the best resolution we can get for you. I’m sorry that we couldn’t get your registration fee back in cash.

Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Elliott.org. Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

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