A legitimate complaint wrapped inside a frivolous one — should I let this case go?

A rainy day at the airport. / Photo by Carib b – Flickr Creative Commons
I don’t normally dismiss cases reflexively, but when I hear someone complaining about special meals, it takes a lot for me to follow through and contact an airline on their behalf.

But Anthony Harris’ problem was different. Yes, he had an issue with the kosher meal he says US Airways failed to provide on his flight from New York to London, but there was also the matter of the $100 cab fare he had to pay after his first flight was canceled.

All of this raises a bigger question: Should I advocate for travelers whose grievances are framed in a way that they make it difficult, if not impossible, to successfully mediate?

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Don’t misunderstand me. Spending half a day on a plane without any edible food is no small problem. But complaints about in-flight cuisine are generally considered frivolous by the airline; their attitude is, “Well, consider yourself lucky that we had any food on the flight.” (And in a day and age when meals aren’t included in the price of even a transcontinental flight, they have a point.)

Harris’ grievance about kosher meals was further undermined by a complaint about a rude flight attendant. Again, many airlines feel that having anyone attend to your needs is a luxury, so if one of their attendants gets snippy, so what?

I don’t share that view, by the way. I think crewmembers should always be polite. Let them be rude when they’re off the clock. Go on, flight attendants, leave an unkind comment on my site if you really want to vent. I can take it!

Harris was scheduled to fly from New York to Philadelphia and then on to London. But his shuttle flight to Philadelphia was canceled, so he had to take a cab to Philadelphia to make the connection, he says.

“This cost an extra $100,” he noted.

Harris also wants a refund for the New York-to-Philadelphia leg, because he couldn’t use it. That sounds fair (wait for US Airways’ response before deciding if it is, though).

Now, about the airline food. I’ll let Harris explain:

Our party had ordered kosher meals and US Airways was one short and one of our party never received the meal.

Approximately half an hour after the meals had been finished, one of the stewardesses tapped me on the shoulder just as I had fallen asleep and told me that it was my fault that the other person had not had a meal, as it was given to me instead.

Apparently, it was not on her list that I should get a kosher meal, even though my son traveling with me and sitting next to me was down for the meal.

I had ordered a kosher meal, I had checked that the meal had been put on the flight and had been given the meal and had eaten it — it was a ridiculous thing to suggest that it was my fault.

Later, when flight attendants handed out snacks, Harris asked about the kosher meals again.

“I told the stewardess very politely that I was not very happy with this, as these meals had been ordered when the tickets were booked,” he says. “She again tried to blame me and also said there was nothing they could do now.”

And then came the confrontation.

I shrugged my shoulders and was going to leave it at that. However, one of the stewards saw me shrugging my shoulders and started shouting at me that I had been complaining all through the flight about the food — which was absolutely not true — and then he swore at me twice.

He said, “I don’t give a s**t.”

This was absolutely unacceptable behavior from one of your staff members and I would like a full refund of my ticket for being shouted at and sworn at in public. I look forward to your very speedy reply or I will speak to my solicitor.

That’s British for, “Refund my ticket, or I’ll sue.”

US Airways’ response?

Based on what you’ve said and the information in your e-mails, our flight attendant didn’t handle the situation with the quality customer care we expect. I apologize and understand your frustration. I can assure you this doesn’t reflect the US Airways philosophy and your feedback will be used to help US improve service.

I’ve shared your experience with the inflight supervisory staff and appropriate InFlight Manager. This incident will also be discussed with the employee and handled internally.

While we are unable to provide the compensation you have requested, as a business courtesy, I’ve authorized two $50.00 Electronic Travel With US Vouchers (E-TUV).

Your request for a refund of the unused La Guardia to Philadelphia segment has been sent to our Refund Department. Please allow 14-21 business days for processing.

Mr. Harris, we know that you have many choices when it comes to traveling these days and we would welcome the opportunity to provide a more pleasurable experience on a future US Airways flight. At this time, we respectfully consider this file closed.

Harris doesn’t consider the matter closed.

He points out that if he’d said the same thing to the flight attendant, he’d be arrested for interfering with the flight crew. That’s probably true.

“It is for this unacceptable behavior that I am asking compensation,” he told me. “It created a lasting impression with me and all those who traveled with me.”

I think a full ticket refund is a little much. I’m more concerned with the canceled flight and the $100 cab ride to Philadelphia. US Airways blames air traffic problems for the cancellation, and it’s true that Harris should have spoken with a ticket agent about his options for connecting to his overseas flight instead of grabbing a cab to Philly.

Should I advocate for a refund of his $100 cab fare, even though it’s been overshadowed by an emotionally-charged grievance about airline food?

I have a strong suspicion that US Airways was technically following its contract by refunding the New York-Philadelphia leg while denying him the cab fare. But is that the right call?

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