Passenger charged an extra $2,600 after airline delay makes her miss flight

American Airlines recommends you check in two hours before an international flight. But Fran Mingle’s friend showed up two hours and twenty minutes before her flight from Orlando back to Japan, missed the plane and had to pay $2,600 to get home. What gives?

This is hardly an isolated case. I routinely hear about passengers who miss their flights because of inadequate staffing at check-in counters, security delays and other airport-related problems. Increasingly, airlines are taking a hard line on tardy customers. If you don’t show up at the gate in time, they charge you for a new ticket.

Here’s Mingle’s story:

My son has had a houseguest from Japan for the holidays. He dropped her at the Orlando International Airport for her return flight back to Japan. She got in line at the American Airlines counter two hours and twenty minutes before her flight.

There were only a few ticket agents at the counter so the line went on forever. She waited and waited. After getting concerned about missing her flight because of the inordinate delay, she asked if she could be accommodated next but the American Airlines personnel told her “no.”

She had to remain in line and wait her turn. By the time they got to her and opened up her reservation they refused to process her boarding pass. They said she would never make the flight in 30 minutes.

American’s advice? Next time, get here earlier.

They offered to put her on the next morning’s flight for an additional charge of $2,600. This is an outrage. American Airlines creates a situation that caused this passenger to forfeit their seat and they offer to sell it back to them at an inflated price. She missed her flight, missed her connecting flight in Japan with another carrier and missed work. And furthermore, when this passenger expressed concern about missing her flight they refuse to accommodate her and told her to get back in line and wait her turn.

I asked American Airlines about this case. Here’s its response:

While we make every effort to ensure there are enough agents staffing our ticket counters, it is not always possible to forecast the number of customers who will need assistance — especially when unexpected circumstances cause long lines. Unfortunately, as she experienced on Jan. 5, there are occasions when lines move slower than we would like, and our customers are inconvenienced.

Whenever possible, we try to obtain additional manpower — either to help customers check in at the counter or to identify those customers whose flight times are fast approaching so they can be given priority.

Accordingly, we regret that when she advised our agent that her flight time was imminent, she wasn’t accommodated. It is possible, however, that our agent working the line knew there were other customers ahead of her with similar or sooner flight times than hers. In that case, it would not have been fair to advance her in line.

If we determine that the sequence of customers in our check-in lines compares pretty closely with their respective flight times, the best that we can do is efficiently process the line as quickly as we can. Still, we apologize again for this undoubtedly frustrating experience and I’ve shared your comments with our General Manager in Orlando to ensure our personnel are following correct procedure in this regard.

I don’t think it’s fair to charge a passenger for another ticket when you’re running an understaffed check-in counter. But there a few ways passengers like Mingle’s friend can avoid this problem in the future.

First, keep in mind that during peak times — before and after major holidays — check-in counters tend to get busy. It’s best to give yourself an extra hour to check in.

Second, consider checking in online and printing a boarding pass. Many airlines have two check-in lines: one for passengers who have already checked in and need to tag their luggage (and it’s usually shorter) and one for the rest.

Finally, if it looks as if you’re going to miss your flight, whip out your cell phone and call the airline. It may be able to rebook without charging extra or tell you how to expedite your check-in when a ticket agent is being less than cooperative.

I think American owes Mingle’s guest a full refund.

Update (Jan. 12, 2009): American is sending her a voucher for $2,600, according to my contact at the airline.

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