Hey British Airways, your template is showing! (And how ’bout a refund, while you’re at it?)

Here’s a funny story with a happy ending from a cruise passenger whose British Airways flight was canceled earlier this year during a strike. Larry Cook and his wife arrived in Southampton last May but their flight to Paris had been called off because of the work stoppage.

“The purser found this out for us but I was unable to contact British Airways while aboard ship due to overload on their Internet site,” he says. “We jumped in a cab for Heathrow Airport and borrowed the drivers cellphone but we were again unable to reach British Airways by phone due to overload problems.”

Instead of heading to the airport, Cook decided to take the train to Paris and try to get a refund for his flight. Under Rule 10 of its contract of carriage, British Airways will refund tickets for flights it cancels.

Cook formally requested a refund a few days later, and he also submitted some of his incidental expenses arising from his diversion to the train station and asked for the airline’s “consideration.”

The airline’s response? Nothing. And that’s where this case gets interesting.

Cook eventually received a strange form letter.

I am extremely sorry your flight was affected by the industrial action by our cabin crew. I can appreciate how disappointed and frustrated you were. Please accept my apologies.

Throughout this situation, our main concern was for our customers and how it affected them. I appreciate this is little consolation for the frustration and difficulties you experienced.

Since the cause of the cancellation was beyond our control (Union sanctioned crew strike), we are unable to offer any reimbursement or compensation for your taxi or alternate transportation on Eurostar. I am sorry to disappoint you.

I have passed on the details of your tickets to our Refunds team and they will get in touch with you as soon as possible about your refund. Please bear with us if this doesn’t happen straightaway as you can imagine, we’re dealing with many more refund requests than usual just at the moment. If you need to contact them yourself in the meantime, this is the address to write to: British Airways Refunds Department, PO Box 690357, East Elmhurst, NY 11369-0357

I am sorry our service did not meet its usual high standards on this occasion and I hope it will not deter you from flying with us again.

But the message continues … and here’s where it gets a litte odd.

Settlement paragraphs – please add appropriate amounts from the grid on page 9

As an apology, I have arranged for you to have a travel credit of $(XXX), which you or one of your family may use, with my compliments. You are welcome to put it towards the cost of any British Airways service. This credit is valid for a year from July 20, 2010 and is not renewable. Please note it cannot be used on ba.com.

This is an electronic credit, so there is no paper voucher. When you are ready to make your booking, simply call our reservations team at 1-800-AIRWAYS, quoting your reference, CR Credit 8296655. Our sales agent will make your travel arrangements and put this credit towards the cost.

Oops, your template is showing.

Cook appealed to some higher-level contacts at British Airways, and a few weeks later, it refunded his canceled airfare.

But what about that initial letter with the template and the promised $(XXX) refund? Would British Airways take care of the extra expenses incurred by Cook after all?

I passed Cook’s email correspondence along to British Airways, mostly because it was so confusing. An airline representative called him.

After listening to 20 minutes of how bad a year British Airways has had and then ten more minutes of how BA was not responsible for its employees, we agreed to disagree. [The airline] has now sent us a credit voucher for $400, which we consider fair enough.

I only wish there had not been such a hassle. Thank you again for your help!

No doubt, this hasn’t been a banner year for British Airways. But I don’t know if the company needed to subject one of its customers to a half-hour lecture on airline economics and corporate policy. Still, I’m happy that it finally resolved this case.

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