Need your advice: Is this enough compensation for a canceled flight to Rio?

Rio will have to wait for HaiYing Soong and her family. Their planned eight-day trip to Brazil didn’t happen last month after their connecting flight on US Airways from Charlotte was canceled. But has the airline done enough to compensate her for the trouble?

I’ve been going back and forth with Soong for several days, and I’m not entirely sure. According to US Airways’ contract of carriage — an agreement written by the airline’s lawyers and enforced by the Transportation Department — it owes her a refund for the unused tickets. But after you hear her story, you may think US Airways can do better.

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But better how? And, more importantly, what should Soong do now?

Let’s get to the story. Soong, her husband and six-year-old son flew from San Francisco to Charlotte to pick up the connection to Rio on June 23.

While waiting to board, we learned through several announcements that our flight was delayed for “a short while” because the aircraft had to be cooled down; we were assured that boarding will take place soon. After about three hours however, at 1:30 a.m., we were told that our plane actually had an air-conditioning problem that they were trying to fix and that they would give us the final status of the flight for sure in 5 minutes.

At about 2 a.m. U.S. Air announced that our flight has been cancelled because they could not solve the air conditioning problem. What’s more alarming at this point is: U.S. Air gate staff there did not seem to know the solution. Later, they told us that they would have a new aircraft in the morning to fly us out – U.S. Air 9010.

But that didn’t happen. After waiting at the airport all night, and standing in a long line the next morning, the family got some more bad news: Flight 9010 was also canceled.

Effective chaos then ensued as 200-plus passengers from the Rio flight attempted to get rebooked. We were eventually escorted back through security to the U.S. Air international counters in the terminal where three counter agents attempted to rebook/reroute some 200+ upset passengers, with three policemen standing in the background!

After nearly three hours of waiting, when my husband finally reached the counter agent, the agent told him that there was no current availability on flights to Rio for my family until Aug. 10 (more than two weeks from that day – July 24!). We could not believe that they could not find any seats available for the next 16 days to get us to Rio from Charlotte.

Under US Airways’ contract, the family is owed a full refund on the unused portion of its flight, which it offered. But that doesn’t begin to address Soong’s problems.

My husband, who is a professor at [The University of California], missed giving his technical lecture at an international engineering conference in Rio. We had significant out-of-pocket expenses – in addition to three international airfares, we were charged with the no-show hotel bill for the first night in Rio, and for booked shuttle fees in Rio to get us to the hotel, as well as other related expenses such as Brazilian visa fees, parking at SFO, etc., all together totaling roughly $4,500.

An appeal to US Airways sweetened the offer. In a phone call to her husband, an airline representative offered to reimburse the family for both the used and unused portion of the flights, plus issue vouchers for $300 for each passenger.

Is that enough compensation for a night spent at the airport, a missed vacation and out-of-pocket expenses totaling $4,500?

Do the math; it isn’t.

But Soong isn’t entitled to more, according to US Airways’ contract. It didn’t have to refund the used ticket and offer the vouchers. So here’s her dilemma: Should she wait for the refund and the vouchers — vouchers, by the way, she says she won’t be able to use — and then ask for more, or should she reject the offer on the table, possibly endangering the entire refund?

What would you do? Is this enough compensation? Should US Airways compensate her and her family in a more meaningful way? If so, should she ask for it now, or wait until the check arrives in the mail?

Update (10 a.m.): I’ve been copied on an email to US Airways by Soong.

Thank you for your phone call on the morning of Aug.3, 2010 informing us that:

1. US Airways will process the refund for us separately on the USED tickets (SFO-Charlotte on July 23) and UNUSED portions (Charlotte-Rio and returns to SFO on Aug 1-2) of our flights.

As detailed in our letter of July 28, 2010, the total amount of our three air tickets (SFO-GIG) is close to US$3,900.;

For this refund offer, would you kindly provide us with a written confirmation/letter from your office in addition to your phone call on Aug.3?

2. US Airways has issued 3 vouchers in the amount of $300 each voucher respectively for my wife, myself and my son (i.e. total $900), in lieu of reimbursing us for other related expenses which totals about $500. You advised that US Airways can only refund us these cost in the form of vouchers.

We appreciate your effort in trying to reimburse us as such, however, please understand that these vouchers have little use to us at this point and what’s more they cannot help us offset/pay the incurred expense as a result of this aborted trip. From our vantage point, this Rio trip that we planned for many months was a lifetime opportunity that was unfortunately ruined not because of the mechanical problem of the aircrafts but due to the way the situation was handled after our two flights were canceled.

For this reason and the hassles as well as our time wasted during and after this aborted trip, not to mention all the disruptions to our other schedules, we feel that US Airways could really use this opportunity to make it right this time by offering us a reasonable compensation. At the very least, we feel that US Airways should also refund us on our approx. $500 expenses resulting from this canceled travel.

If our satisfaction is truly important to US Airways as stated in your email yesterday, we’d like to kindly ask you to please reconsider your decision and at least refund us the incurred expenses as well, if no reasonable compensation could be offered for putting us through two horrific days and all the inconveniences thereafter.

Once again we appreciate your decision and thank you sincerely for at least refunding the cost of the airline tickets.

So there you have it. They’re going to ask for cash compensation. I’ll update this when it’s resolved.

Meantime, in answer to some of the comments and questions. Soong booked this flight on Orbitz and she didn’t have travel insurance. I’m not sure if a trip interruption policy would have covered all of the family’s expenses, but it might have taken care of some of them.

(Photo: sven werk/Flickr Creative Commons)

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