How passengers exact revenge on fee-happy airlines

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Aaron Fox is not the vindictive type. He’s a surfer, which, if you look it up in the dictionary, is synonymous with “laid back.”

But he felt anything but easygoing when he flew from Myrtle Beach, SC, to San Francisco on US Airways recently. The flight to South Carolina was uneventful; as the airline had done many times before, it allowed him to check his surfboard at no extra charge. But on the way back, a gate agent asked him for $200 to transport his board.

A “lengthy” discussion followed, with Fox insisting he wouldn’t have brought the surfboard from San Francisco if he’d known it would cost him a grand total of $400.

“Ultimately, they persuaded me to pay $200, with the shift manager guaranteeing we would get a $175 refund from US Airways customer service if we just submitted the information when we got home,” he says.

You can probably guess what happened next. Fox returned to San Francisco, asked for a refund – and was turned down flat in a form email.

“The fee for a surf board is $200 each way,” it said. “I am unable to honor the request you have made for a refund for that fee you received at Myrtle Beach because the fee is valid. For more information on our baggage allowance and special items, please refer to our website.”

I asked US Airways if that was their final answer.

“He was appropriately charged, per policy,” a spokesman told me. “I’m sorry for the confusion and his disappointment with the outcome.”

So Fox did what an increasing number of travelers are doing when they’re confronted by an intransigent airline: He exacted revenge by disputing the charge on his credit card.

“I feel like that’s a trump card consumers often forget they have,” he says.

He’s right.

Disputing a credit card charge can be a major inconvenience to a business, even a big one like US Airways. Each dispute requires a personal response from an airline, including documentation of the purchase. And the burden is on the business to prove the transaction is legitimate. Even if the customer doesn’t win, it can burn up enough of the company’s time to make it pay for its mistakes.

A related strategy – and admittedly, an extreme measure – is to simply cancel the credit card. I’ve run across that a time or two recently. This rarely works with a charge that’s in dispute (the bank will still find a way to charge you) but if there’s a recurring charge you’ve agreed to, with, say a fare “club” this can be a highly effective way to deny an airline its money.

Finally, an irritated customer can bring his or her case to the media, in the hopes they’ll write something about it. The court of public opinion can be an unforgiving place. (I know.) Obviously, that’s what Fox did – and obviously, it worked. Even if a customer is wrong — and customers are often wrong — the damage can be significant, in terms of negative PR points.

By the way, as a media guy, I try to stay out of the public shaming business. But it’s not always easy.

Interestingly, I’ve seen more customers take matters into their own hands than ever before. Maybe it’s a feeling of powerlessness that passengers like Fox have experienced, when dealing with an airline.

Maybe it’s just me, but something tells me that frustration is growing.

59 thoughts on “How passengers exact revenge on fee-happy airlines

  1. It really depends on the circumstances. If a customer is wronged, and attempts to resolve the problem with no luck, then, by all means let the shaming begin. However, if the customer does not give the company a chance to fix it – or demands too much compensation (like the gentleman who demanded a full refund for a mistake with a special meal) then public shaming and revenge methods are out of line.

  2. I had a similar experience with United. I had paid the unaccompanied minor fee which included escorting my children off the plane. Instead United let the children walk off the airplane and wander about the terminal. So, I told (in a nice way) that United didnt do what they were supposed to and they should refund the fee. The agent refused, a second request to customer service said no, so I filed the credit card dispute. The credit card company sided with me–I paid for a service and United didnt fully provide that service.

    1. Do not trust your children to United. They third-party that service out now. I’d love to know if they actually do background checks!

  3. I’m not sure I’m on board with the OP’s cause here.

    He insisted “he wouldn’t have brought the surfboard from San Francisco if he’d known it would cost him a grand total of $400.”

    US Airways’ website clearly says: “Surfboards will be accepted as checked baggage for a charge of $200 per direction.”

    Strike 1.

    “…with the shift manager guaranteeing we would get a $175 refund from US
    Airways customer service if we just submitted the information when we
    got home”.

    If the manager didn’t decrease the fee there and then, what possible reason could the OP give for asking for a refund? Didn’t get a dodgy promise in writing?

    Strike 2.

    “…Maybe it’s a feeling of powerlessness that passengers like Fox have experienced…”

    How was the OP powerless in this case? Dude! The airline has a clearly stated policy. He wasn’t charged the fee on the outbound (and should consider him $200 up). That has nothing to do with whether he gets charged on the way back. (ie. a nice agent might overlook a few extra kgs on your luggage. But on the next leg, it’ll be a totally different agent who might not be as nice. How does the argument, “But the OTHER agent didn’t charge me!” have any weight?)

    Strike 3. Wipe out.

    1. I’m with you – his complaint is he didn’t like it. Or that he wasn’t charged the first time — dude, say ‘thank you’ that they didn’t charge you on a clearly disclosed fee. Don’t whine that they didn’t give you a pass the second time around. Have to go with US Airways on this one.

  4. Having worked for a credit card company, I can tell you that the frequency and types of disputes you make work against you at times. Those that used disputes as a “trump card” were not invited to upgrade their card to one that had better terms and services associated with it.

    While a credit card may claim they side with the disputer, they still may pay the merchant. Both the cardholder and merchant are customers of the credit card company.

    1. Thank you for the insight! I never would have thought that sometimes the card company would refund the cardholder but not ding the merchant. I’ve disputed a charge on my credit card exactly once, and it was with an airline – but I wholeheartedly believe I was in the right. I wasn’t trying to get around an appropriately disclosed fee like the surfer in this story.

      1. When someone had a higher than average transactions per dispute ratio their account was noted. I used the “trump card” reference since it was used in the story. If people play the “trump card” too much, they become a “high maintenance” customer in the credit card company’s eyes…preventing them from “moving up the ladder” so to speak.

        1. Also, the credit card companies will cancel your card if you dispute too many things. The first one or two disputes are usually settled in your favor (whether on not they actually take the money back from the merchant is irrelevant) unless they are truly outrageous claims, but then you get put into the “customers who cost us too much” group on your third dispute and if you stay there too long by disputing more charges the credit card bank will close out your account.

          I have only disputed one charge where I ordered something, the delivery service claimed it was delivered but it never showed up at my door. After working with the company for a month and making no progress toward a suitable resolution (i.e. send me another one) I disputed. Got my money refunded ($200). But this is also a card that at the time I was putting $20K on every year. So the bank made more from the interchange fees than they refunded to me.

          1. A lot like what Allstate did to me on auto insurance. I had a claim for a cracked windshield and then hit a deer within 6 months. They advised me I was high risk and dropped me. Almost 30 years later I’ve never had another claim with my subsequent insurers. Allstate’s loss.

  5. The airline industry has been mistreating us for the past few years with American now the WORST! I’m a Platinum AAdvantage flier with 1 million miles on American and I have had it. The final straw was my “first class” meal on a 4 hour flight consisting of a cookie and a glass of wine. I had just come off a 2 hour flight on a tiny 45 passenger jet and was exhausted and starving. American’s response? Tough S**t. Another stunt American pulls is marketing a seat in coach as “Preferred Premium”. In reality it is still a crappy little seat with 31″ of leg room. The premium part? It was an aisle seat. Who’s kidding who here?

    1. Cattle being sent to slaughter have more transit space requirements than humans on commercial aircraft. Thank you, airline lobbyists!!!

    2. At least your seat didn’t come loose like the recent cases.
      United is not much better. I will try to avoid all the US carriers when I fly overseas in the future.
      We are nothing but baggage to these airlines.

  6. I’m not with the OP on this one. The fee is disclosed on the website, and he was lucky they didn’t charge him the first time. I am guessing he a got a “good” agent who let it go. But disputing a valid published charge as revenge seems wrong to me. If people abuse this privileged, I fear it will go away. It could also lead to more fees getting pushed onto the rest of us. While I think the fee is ridiculous, it apparently is what the market bears. Disputing it when you actually got the service is very dishonest in my book and enforces the airlines view that passenger are the problem.
    As far as the agent telling he he would get a partial refund later, I think he should have asked for it in writing like Chris always says. I wish the airline could actually do what its employees say, but I still think disputing it was the wrong way to go. that needs to be saved for cases such as fraud and theft so that we can retain that right.

  7. This “revenge” is not justified. The fee is valid.

    If consumers decide to extract unjustified “revenge,” then Congress will cancel the ability of consumers to dispute credit card charges for any reason. Then what progress has the consumer made?

    Don’t cry wolf for frivolous and wrong reasons.

    1. If customers lose the ability to dispute fishy charges, they will simply cut back on discretionary travel. You lose anyway.

      1. Agreed…but what does this have to do with SoBeSparky’s post? He’s just calling for consumers not to abuse the system, not for the abolishment of it.

      2. There is a difference between “fishy” charges and committing fraud. Agreeing to pay for something and knowing that you are going to dispute the charge crosses the line to fraud for me. Completely different than I don’t recognize this charge on my card.
        The OP agreed to pay for his board, the charge wasn’t a mistake and he still disputed it.

        1. I wouldn’t put all “fishy” charges paid knowing you are going to dispute the charge. If you know the charge is not valid, but the only way to complete a trip/task/whatever is to pay it, I see no fraud on the card holder’s part to pay it and then dispute it, especially if they can back up the claim it should not have been charged.

  8. So, just to play devil’s advocate (since that’s how I roll)…
    United does state on it’s webpage that surfboards carry a charge of $200 each way. Boogie and wakeboards don’t have an over-size fee.

    Did Chillax Surfer Dude look that up and maybe not see United differentiates between the two?

  9. What is the OP’s reason for disputing the charge? Is he claiming fraud (ie he didn’t make the charge)? If so, he’s on very thin ice especially since he then went to the media and told the world that he claimed fraud when it wasn’t . Sorry, the charge is listed on the website. Surfer dude was charged the correct amount and may have just totally tubed the dude that help him out in Cali since the airline is going to check why he wasn’t charged on the front end. Way to ruin it for everyone else!

    1. You’re right. I had a Lufthansa agent cut me a break on excess baggage once. I knew I should’ve been charged, and I had my credit card out and ready to pay, and he grinned at me and told me not to worry about it. I didn’t stab the guy in the back on my return route because that agent did charge me. I was just grateful the first guy cut me the break when he didn’t have to.

  10. When did US Airways introduce this fee and when did the OP buy his ticket? As of January 2011, US Airways did not have this fee:

    Even if he bought his ticket after the fee was added, the OP has a point IMO if he wasn’t charged or informed about it on the outbound leg. If he was asked to pay the fee on the first leg, he could have weighed more options at that point (such as leaving his board behind and renting one at his destination).

    Edit: On second thought, the when-did-he-buy his ticket issue is largely moot: if he was charged $0 on departure and $200 on return then that would effectively be the same as the Jan 2011 policy of $100/each way.

    1. Your article says US Air charged $100 last Jan 2011.
      It also said United already charged $200 at that time.
      So it is possible US Air changed its fees to match United’s?
      It also would be quite confusing if UA and US were not charging the same fees since they often codeshare flights between each other.

    2. I could be wrong on this, as I only tend to book on one website, but don’t most airline and search engines (like Expedia) only show the base ticket price when you purchase? Ryanair (not that they’re perfect by any means) at least discloses the baggage fee when you book (in fact, you can’t book without disclosing the number of bags you are checking). I’d rather know up front and immediately than be surprised when I show up to the counter with a bag or special item.

      Now that I think of it, why don’t search engines like Expedia allow you to specify the number of bags checked for easy cost comparison between airlines?

  11. I’m curious about the “many times” he’s done this before without being charged anything. When was the last time the board traveled for free? It appears from others’ posts that back in January 2011 the fee was already $100. Hard to believe that hefty a fee would be consistently waived. On the other hand, they apparently waived the $200 fee on the first leg of this trip, so maybe they haven’t been collecting it? Weird.

    And the whole bit about his being promised a $175 refund is just bizarre. What would be the basis of such a refund? (And not even for the full amount, but almost the full amount.) If they’d wanted to give him a break, they could have just waived the fee on the spot. Not saying it didn’t happen the way the OP claims, but that would have been a case where I’d have been thinking “No way can this go the way this person is telling me.”

    1. My guess is the $175 refund was just the supervisor’s way of getting the OP to shut up, pay the fee, and go away. I would bet the supervisor knew full well he would not get the refund and “offered” it just as a way to appease the OP.

      1. Agreed. When nothing somebody is telling you makes any sense, there’s even more reason to demand it in writing.

        It does make me wonder, though, why the supervisor didn’t tell just tell the OP he’d be refunded all his money. Maybe the supervisor’s heart was in the right place. It does seem they’re quite inconsistent on that fee. I don’t tend to travel with special items. Seems strange to me that they’re such sticklers on all other fees, but this guy could constantly take a surfboard without paying anything.

        1. I think here is the reason behind that $175:

          Some would argue that a surfboard is nothing but an ordinary checked luggage (with a $25/$35 first/second bag fee, respectively).
          But USAir charges a flat fee of $200 for a surfboard.

          The OP can argue (incorrectly) that the $175 would be the difference between the two.
          Coincidentally, $175 is also the fee for an OVERSIZE luggage (62-80 inches in dimension).

          A surfboard is usually at least 6 feet long. It cannot be handled by the regular convertor belts and sorting equipment so it is moved manually (by hand) to and from (and between) the airplane. Obviously there is a special fee for doing this service.

      2. That happened to me once.
        United started charging a miles+money for upgrades, it used to be just miles. However on domestic travel, the fee is waived for premier frequent flier. I upgraded both of us several times with miles since the fee started, and they always waived it for her as well when we were on the same reservation.
        On this particular flight, I upgraded us both on with miles, when we got to the airport they said we needed to pay $75 for her. I asked about the fee begin waived for elites and was told that since she is a general member she has to pay it and its only waived for me. I mentioned that I’ve never had to pay it before and that I thought it was waived for anyone on the same PNR as me. She told me that I should call later and ask for a refund if that is the case, however she can’t print her boarding pass until we pay the fee, because the computer won’t let her.
        I did call later, and they confirmed that she should not have to pay the fee if we are on the same PNR, however they said the computer would not let them refund the fee either. They gave me a $75 voucher for future travel instead.
        I did think about disputing the charge, but decided it wasn’t worth risking my relationship with United or my credit card company.

      3. I agree. My experience is they tell you to REQUEST a refund (either online or calling customer service). I think some people mistakenly understand this to be a promise or granting a refund.

        “Call 1-800-xxx-xxxx and ASK for a refund” does not mean you were promised one.

    2. From looking at the airline’s website, the fee for an oversize excess bag is $175. I’m guessing that is where that figure came from. As to why he’d be promised a refund on that, I have no idea.

  12. This is wrong. Surfer dude is going to fraudulently dispute the charge because the airline didn’t give him a free ride? This only gives the airlines ammunition. Better solution: DO SOME RESEARCH, fly an airline that doesn’t charge fees, and then write to the president of US Airways and say “FYI, I didn’t fly your airline because you charge $200 for a surfboard. That’s $x of income that went to your competitors.” If enough surfers do that, we might see a change.

      1. QANTAS:

        To carry a surfboard or surfski as baggage, fins must be removed where possible and placed in an enclosed compartment or taped to the board. Paddles must also be taped to the board. Qantas Check-in will attach a Fragile tag to the bag and you must complete and sign the limited release portion of the baggage tag.

        Australian Domestic and International Routes
        Only accepted if enclosed in a surfboard bag and does not exceed 32kg (70lb) in weight and 277cm (109in) in length. Any additional bags will each be assessed at the Airport Excess Baggage rates. You can pre-purchase Additional Baggage Allowance at lower rates than Airport Excess Baggage rates.
        Boards/skis that exceed 277cm (109in) in length must be sent as freight and freight charges will apply.
        Note: Due to size restrictions some equipment may not travel on the same aircraft as the customer.

  13. Slightly off topic:
    Spirit (ugh) has announced they are upping carryon fees to $100 each way. This is to go in effect right before Thanksgiving. Who wants to bet we’ll see a bunch of “BUT I DIDN’T KNOW I BOUGHT A TICKET ON A CHEEZEBALL AIRLINE GIMME MAH MONEEE BACK” cases?

    1. The rules are suppose to apply to when the ticket was purchased. So those who bought their tickets already shouldn’t be charged…but again this is Spirit!

    2. for sure we will!
      btw they announced that several months ago. the fees are ONLY if you wait until you get to the gate to declare your carryon. i believe the ticket counter price is still $40.

  14. at least once a day i hear, “But they didn’t charge me on the way here.” it’s infuriating. whether it was an agent who failed to notice the overweight bag or an agent who let them go with an extra bag, it doesn’t matter. just because someone made the choice or mistake, that doesn’t mean i should repeat it. (and sometimes, i can see that they WERE charged!)

    it also frustrates the heck out of me when coworkers knowingly let things “slide”. it doesn’t happen all the time, but it does happen. that’s not okay with me. you’ve just made me look like the Bad Guy, since i’m the one following the rules. (my job is to apply these rules. i refuse to jeopardize my job.)

    1. “But they didn’t charge me the $35 bag fee on the way here!”

      Sometimes, I just want to say. “Ooh, you’re right, let me correct that, it will be $70 to make up for the missed bag fee as well as today’s. Thank you for mentioning that, how would you like to pay?” 😉

      1. LOL i was about to post an addendum saying just that. i’ve used that line before…. it doesn’t go over very well!

  15. With all due respect, “Revenge” is never justified. People who are wronged should seek Justice (not Revenge).

    I see a lot of cases here where the OP(s) complain about being TOLD s/he can, will or may get something by airline employees or contracted staff and then later can’t get what they say they were told. You do a simple read of the airlines Contract of Carriage and Tariff and you see that the charges are correct and no employee of the airline is authorized to change policies. So it becomes a he said, she said issue that goes nowhere. I am not sure what the appropriate prescription is to this kind of “disease”.

  16. I often play chicken with large businesses, and usually win.  Twitter bombs sometimes get attention. Not that I have a lot of followers, but I follow a lot of people (some in Media/Radio), so it gets noticed.  

  17. I can see why he is upset. As you stated in the very beginning, USAir did NOT charge him on the trip to SC. So I can understand him thinking it’s wrong to charge him going back to CA. Inconsistancy from airline, what’s a person to think??

  18. I’m with the customer on this one. No airline requires customers to read their website prior to traveling. I’d gather that many people only check the website if they are using a different airline than they usually use or have heard something on the news or gotten a letter from the airline that something has changed. I usually fly Southwest, and do not read their website prior to every flight.

    So every time this guy flies with his surfboard, he checks if for free. So he assumes, as is normal, that this time is no different. And in fact, when he gets on his flight, it’s the same. Then for the return flight, all of a sudden there’s this outrageous fee? Um, no. Why is this not okay? Well, now he’s stuck. Had he been told before beginning his journey, he could have chosen a different airline. Instead, they tell him at the gate of his returning flight. Not so easy to switch airlines at this point.

  19. I have flown US airways, the crappiest airline in America, half dozen times, and never
    ever by choice..each time they outdid themselves in the scale of their
    jawdropping incompetence, plain rudeness and shockingly nasty impunity.
    It’s the kind of corp. that you may well pop a bottle of champagne for
    if it disappeared from the face of the earth.

    They will almost
    never own their issues, always blame the customer and will almost never
    as much give a 10% coupon in compensation. They seem to enjoy messing
    with people…you really have to see it to believe it.

    Rated the worst
    US airline, they are deeply bankrupt (see Wiki article) and have always
    been addicted to amassing profit for less and less service at the expense of travelers, their comfort and safety. They
    epitomize a corrupt corp. without an ounce of care for the consumer, nasty enough to be the villain in a Bond movie.

    Their planes are mostly old and dirty and surely a matter of time before
    they drop like turd from the sky. Their crew is generally sad
    and decrepit. And if you complain in any tone, they will turn on you
    like methheads. I have seen them do this time and time again to mothers,
    the elderly, young people and me.

    If you fly them, it’s only
    bec. you have no choice. I would suggest that anything up to 30% more
    for a ticket from another airline is worth the hell these sobs will dish
    out to you.

    Think I am exaggerating? Go on, fly them and make their day

  20. I was informed by Travelocity (T) that I could take three (3) checked bags on Spirit Air’s (S) flight to Lima, Peru; upon calling S about a fourth checked item (printer) – I was shocked to be informed of their ONE (1) CHECKED BAG policy on this flight!
    I had called with 24 hours of booking thru T; but I was informed there was only four (4) hours to cancel; WRONG! I contacted my card & filed a dispute; T or S never responded to same & of course no refund! I should have been correctly informed that I had 24 hours to cancel & a refund processed – April 2012.
    It is my feeling that T should have informed me of this very unusual policy & S had an obligation to monitor what info was given on T & other agent sites (this mis-info is still not corrected). DON’T THE COMPUTERS – TALK TO EACH OTHER??? Maybe the DOT will include such practices in their new Flight Rights legislation – hope so.
    I am interested in using the social media to bring these unethical (& maybe illegal policies) to the attention of others; maybe people would think twice before using the services of T or S – both well represented in consumer complaints. Please offer me some suggestions & ideas to do so.
    I have also detailed this in the forum “Code-sharing” of Oct. 2012; thanks to Chris Elliott, I feel my voice “will be heard”…
    Muchas gracias,
    Philip C. Brown
    [email protected]

    1. You not want to include your email address in your posts, unless you like spam. There are bots that scan forums like this to harvest email address.

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