Why won’t China Southern Airlines let me correct this booking mistake?

By | April 8th, 2017

When Howard Lasnik tries to fix his ticketing error on China Southern Airlines, its agents repeatedly refuse to assist him, leaving him with unusable tickets. Can our advocates help him find his way through this booking snafu?

Question: My wife and I self-booked two tickets on China Southern Airlines from Boston to Guangzhou, China, via New York. We intended to make our connection in New York at Kennedy Airport, but by mistake we booked the first leg of our trip to LaGuardia Airport. This would allow us only one hour to make our connection. Once we received our confirmation, we immediately saw the error. The confirmation indicated that ticketing changes were available, free of charge.

Although China Southern Airlines’ website indicates that passengers can change their reservations online, the site responds to anyone trying to change a booking that changes can only be done by telephone. We called the numbers on the “Contact us” page of the site for the New York and Los Angeles offices, as well as a number in China, without being able to reach anyone.

When we finally spoke to a human agent, the agent told us that ticketing changes could only be made by email, not by telephone, and gave us two email addresses, one of which did not work. We received a response from the other email address indicating to us that changes could only be made by telephone!

We called numerous times, but half the time we could not reach anyone. The other half of the time, we reached persons who told us that their department was not responsible for ticketing changes, that the booking could not be changed at all, or that it could only be changed at a cost of several hundred dollars per passenger. Although we quoted the language on our confirmation that claimed that ticketing changes were available, free of charge, all the agents to whom we spoke responded that “it didn’t matter what the confirmation said.” Either we couldn’t change the ticketing, or we had to pay an exorbitant fee to do so.

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One of the agents claimed that China Southern Airlines could not change the tickets because the Boston to New York leg of our itinerary was code-shared on Delta. We also tried calling Delta, whose agent claimed that Delta could not change the tickets “because they were on China Southern Airlines stock.” China Southern Airlines’ agents also told us that we could not cancel the flights and rebook online or by telephone — we would have to “submit a request” to cancel and they would “decide” whether to refund our money. We chose not to do this as it sounded extremely risky.

Can you help us find our way through this ticketing snafu? Why is correcting our ticketing error so much trouble? — Howard Lasnik, Arlington, Mass.

Answer: It certainly sounds as though China Southern Airlines has been using every possible excuse it can come up with as a reason not to change your tickets. You were jerked around at every turn by its agents — some of whom should have answered the telephone, and at least one of whom should have honored the airline’s promise that you could change your tickets free of charge.

China Southern Airlines’ general conditions of international carriage contains the following language regarding voluntary ticket changes: Change fee shall be paid by passenger who requires flight change of his/her own will. When the changed flight is not performed as scheduled, the ticket can be refunded free of charge while the previously paid change fee shall not be refunded.
11.7 Voluntary refund
Refund beyond the limitations in 11.6 belongs to voluntary refund.
11.7.1 Voluntary refund abides by the following rules: If no portion of the ticket has been used, an amount equal to the fare paid, less any applicable service charges or cancellation fees…

So I think that there was some confusion about whether or not a change fee would apply to your reservation, because this language does allow for change fees. But since your confirmation indicated that they would not be assessed if you changed your reservations, you should have been able to change your flight free of charge as promised. Alternatively, you should have been able to request and receive a refund following cancellation, whether online, on the phone, by email, or any other means. You might also have considered purchasing travel insurance that would have covered the costs of any cancellation before booking your flights.

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You posted in our forums about your case, where our forum advocates agreed with you that there is no possibility of making your connection with the tickets you had booked. They suggested that you might charter a helicopter to travel from Kennedy to LaGuardia Airport. Then you asked our advocacy team for assistance, and we reached out to Delta on your behalf to find out if its agents could assist you.

Your case has a happy ending. Ultimately, you decided to cancel your reservation. But before canceling it, you called your credit card company (Chase) and asked whether you would be protected if China Southern Airlines imposed a cancellation fee. Chase’s agent assured you that you would be protected, so you went ahead with the cancellation online.

After a couple of hours, you received a response from China Southern Airlines requesting copies of your passports, which you provided. You then received a confirmation that China Southern Airlines would refund your booking at no charge. And you rebooked your flights on Delta for a similar price.

The moral of your story is to be extremely cautious when making online purchases, particularly for travel; to either use a travel agent or to book only with companies that you’re familiar with (since you don’t seem to have been familiar with China Southern Airlines before booking your flights) and to double-check that your booking is correct before confirming it.

  • Alan Gore

    There shouldn’t be any confusion about this one because if LW, as asserted, noticed the problem right away, he had the right to get it fixed during the statutory 24-hour window. China Southern blatantly stalled this pax. If I were Trump I would yank China Southern’s landing rights here until they made good on cases like this one.

    Wasn’t this the same airline that booked an impossible connection for a serviceman flying from Seoul, and then refused boarding at Incheon because of their own mistake?

  • cscasi

    I am glad that the airline finally allowed him to cancel his reservations and refunded his money. However, this is a case where it is obvious that Mr. Lasnik failed to do proper diligence when making the reservation; i.e., he did not review his routing and times before purchasing what he did. Sure, I can see he made a mistake, but it was one of his own making and hopefully in the future, he will be more observant and double check for errors; thereby saving him from what he had to go through with China Southern. I agree he had the right to make changes to his reservations, fee free, but look at the hassle he endured because of his original mistake.
    I am still puzzled why China Southern gave him such a run around when he called and needed to change his reservation. It seems pretty obvious that its reservations personnel are not well trained and have no idea how to handle issues like this.

  • Rebecca

    How is the airlines own website allowing a passenger to book a flight with a literally impossible connection? I see that as the glaring problem. Fortunately, the OP immediately noticed. I imagine an inexperienced or foreign passenger could easily miss this. And it wouldn’t be their fault, at the end of the day, if the airline’s own website allowed the booking.

    I’m genuinely curious how this happens. Some system needs to be updated, with some new code, to make sure the computer knows this isn’t possible. It’s a glaring error, and I’m surprised the focus isn’t on that part of the equation.

    I’m glad it worked out for the OP. It just shouldn’t ever happen in the first place.

  • Rebecca

    I’d argue that if the airline’s own website allows the booking, that’s the airline’s error, not the OP’s. Fortunately he noticed immediately. Someone unfamiliar may not. But it baffles me that the website would allow this on a connected ticket (which they must be, because it’s a code share).

  • jim6555

    If I were a high level person at the FAA, I would give China Southern Airlines 30 days to get it’s act together and comply with the US 24 hour free cancellation requirement. If they do not confirm, a fine could be assessed. If after 60 days, the airline is still not compliant, then 15 day formal notice would be given that their landing rights in the United States will be revoked. By providing due process and not involving the President, it is less likely that China will retaliate by cancelling the landing rights of one or more US carriers.

  • PsyGuy

    It’s not the place of travel insurance to compensate for taking your time, and making sure your itinerary is what you want it to be before clicking book it. This is PAX negligence, for which travel insurance would simply not apply.

  • PsyGuy

    It’s not technically impossible to make that connection, assuming everything is on time and the connecting gates are relatively close. I’ve ran and made connections tighter than that. What PAX mistake is that the GDS system is somehow your babysitter, it’s not, it’s just a database that does what it’s told.

  • PsyGuy

    They didn’t “allow” the PAX, the PAX didn’t ask, they canceled the flight and pre-emptively disputed it with their CC, China Southern wasn’t going to get paid. Processing the refund was cheaper than losing a dispute.

    Well this is China Southern, they and China Eastern have notoriously poor service, they are the AA of Asia.

  • PsyGuy

    Why wouldn’t the web site allow it, it’s a website not your parent?

  • PsyGuy

    If they did that, there would be a LOT of airlines including US carriers that wouldn’t be able to fly. This would leave Singapore Airlines, Korean Air, and JAL, which are the pricier and more expensive airlines.

  • PsyGuy

    Seriously, you don’t want to do that to China. They will pull all their flights and deny all US landing rights, just out of spite.

  • Byron Cooper

    Seriously, Trump? Consumer advocate? Check with the graduates of Trump University.

  • Rebecca

    This is an entirely different airport though. I can see if the MCT isn’t likely long enough – there’s an argument there. But these folks had an hour to get to another airport. By any standard that’s impossible.

  • Bill___A

    Banning them from flying if they are unreasonable gives them a choice – be reasonable or don’t fly. I expect they would choose to be reasonable. it beats what we have now, where they can jerk people around. This whole story is how not to be an airline.

  • Bill___A

    I’d give them 24 hours to come into line….

  • PsyGuy

    Their point of view is that they are being reasonable.

  • Lindabator

    you will find this on a lot of bookings — if you take a helicopter transfers, travel without bags, etc it is enough of a connection. and they very clearly highlight the fact these are different airports

  • Lindabator

    7 minutes by helicopter – have clients who do it all the time, as they travel without baggage

  • Rebecca

    Learn something new every day. I have been on a helicopter exactly once. I’m not afraid of flying or of heights. But the noise! Never again.

  • PsyGuy

    It’s less than a 10 minute helo ride, can totally be done.

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