This Alitalia problem is solvable, but where’s her happy ending?

Can this Alitalia get fixed?

Alyson McFarland’s Alitalia problem is solvable. She’d missed her flight from Johannesburg to Tunis even though she showed up at the airport on time. But the solution isn’t going to make her happy, and it probably won’t make you happy, either.

But it’s still worth knowing unless you want to become the next passenger who shows up for a flight on time but misses it. It also gives us an opportunity to go behind the scenes at an airline to see how it tries to keep its schedule, sometimes dishonestly.

As a consumer advocate, I’m personally frustrated by cases like McFarland’s. Her only mistake was assuming that the departure time was, well, the departure time.

No night in Tunisia for her

McFarland contacted me after getting stuck in Johannesburg for an extra night and then having to return to Botswana, where she’s based. She ran up a $1,200 tab for a hotel and lost airfare.

“I had a reservation for an Alitalia flight from Johannesburg to Tunis via Rome that was scheduled to depart 9 p.m.,” she explains. “I arrived at the transfer desk to obtain my boarding pass at 7:42 p.m.”

Too late, an Alitalia representative said.

“I was told that the flight had closed at 7:35 p.m. — nearly 90 minutes in advance,” she recalls. “I was not given a boarding pass and was not permitted to proceed to the gate. The Alitalia representative, as well as other airline representatives in the vicinity, were all astounded to learn that the flight closed almost 90 minutes before departure.”

McFarland says closing a flight nearly 90 minutes before the flight is “absurd.” So she asked Alitalia for a refund.

The airline refused. It said its policy is close the flight 15 minutes before the flight.

“But that means the flight would have closed at 8:45 p.m. — not 7:35 p.m.,” she adds. “Clearly, my complaint was not investigated as claimed. I never even arrived at the gate. I contacted Alitalia again to say that this standard response did not apply to my situation. The only reply I’ve received is an email saying the case is closed.”

What’s the Alitalia policy for boarding

Alitalia is clear about the cut-off times for boarding.

Can anyone solve her Alitalia problem?

The longest cut-off period is one hour. There’s no mention of 90 minutes, which is probably why McFarland reported that the airport agents were surprised.

I felt she had a strong case for a full refund.

Why do airlines cut off their boarding early?

On domestic flights in the United States, boarding usually ends 10 minutes before departure, although it can vary by airline. There’s a separate cut-off time for checking your luggage.

The limits are reasonable. If you left the cabin doors open until the second you were scheduled to push back from the gate, you might have to wait another 10 or 15 minutes to depart. And luggage moves even slower through the airport before it’s loaded on your flight.

You can understand those times being a little longer for international flights. Bigger airport, maybe more passengers. Forty minutes, even sixty minutes seems like plenty of time.

But 90 minutes. A full hour and a half seems excessive.

It can happen. Consider United Airlines’ cut-off times for flights to Micronesia and the Marshall Islands.

Will Alitalia correct these problems?

Yep, that’s right. They’re 90 minutes.

Parenthetically, when I see cut-off times like that, I wonder if the airline has operational challenges. Why would it take so long to load a plane? Why would you need to sit on the tarmac for 1½ hours … waiting. Can’t the airline get its act together?

How to avoid this Alitalia problem

The only solution to this problem: arrive early. Really early.

I’m not the only one saying it. The “early/late” question got a little editorial attention from our print colleagues last month, who declared that there are two different kinds of airport people. That’s a nice way of putting it.

Point is, you’ll want to take those cut-off times and add another 50 percent, just to be safe. So for a 10-minute cut-off, get there at least 15 minutes early; for 45 minutes, add another 20 minutes or so. You just never know when the airline might try to end boarding and close the door.

It happened to these travelers flying from Kona, Hawaii, to San Diego. They’d already checked in for their flight but then detoured to a restaurant for lunch. The flight left without them, even though they were at the gate 15 minutes before its scheduled departure.

The irony, of course, is that airlines play fast and loose with their on-time statistics, with the blessing of the federal government. Did you know that a flight is considered “on time” if it leaves within 15 minutes of its scheduled departure time? In other words, a domestic flight could sit at the gate for 14 minutes and still be considered on time.

And in my book, that’s lying.

The government should immediately change its definition so that on-time actually means what it does to everyone else.

How this Alitalia problem was solved

I contacted Alitalia on McFarland’s behalf. Here’s what it had to say:

Alitalia Flight No. AZ849 from Johannesburg (JNB) to Rome (FCO) was originally scheduled to depart at 9:00 p.m. on April 26, 2019.

On December 3, 2018, a rescheduling happened. An Email was sent to Mrs. McFarland the same day advising the new departure time was 8:35 p.m., along with a copy of the reissued ticket showing the 8:35 p.m. departure time.

When Mrs. McFarland presented herself to the Alitalia desk at approximately 7:43 p.m., the flight was already closed. I apologize if the response from our customer care referenced the time limit for the gate (15 minutes prior to departure) instead of the check-in arrival time to obtain the boarding pass, which is 1 hour prior to departure.

Our customer care office called Mrs. McFarland to clarify this point but she terminated the phone call. We attempted to call again several times again but she has not answered her phone.

The rules of the specially priced airfare Mrs. McFarland purchased do not allow refund in cases of no-show, however, we can proceed to process the applicable tax refund of $102.10. Mrs. McFarland should reply to and request this tax refund.

I’m relieved that Alitalia isn’t randomly changing its cut-off times and happy that she’ll at least get her taxes back. But this isn’t the happy ending she wanted, or that I expected.

McFarland says she never received the email notification or the phone call because she was in Botswana. But as much as I don’t want to close this case, I’ve taken it as far as I can.

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