What to do when your airline tells you to shut up

Ryan Ludtke’s family vacation in Fort Myers, Fla., ended on a bad note when they flew back to Chicago on Spirit Airlines.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking: Of course it did. He was flying on Spirit Airlines.

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But that’s beside the point. His return flight took him, his wife, four-year-old daughter and 18-month old son via a circuitous route, making a connection in Atlantic City. The family’s flight to the Windy City was canceled for reasons that were unclear — one crewmember said there was a mechanical problem, another said it was the weather in Chicago.

The next available flight out of Atlantic City wasn’t until two days later, and Spirit said Ludtke’s family would be responsible for all of their own expenses. Ludtke decided to rent a car, drive to LaGuardia airport, and catch the next Spirit flight to Chicago, running up a tab of $294.

He asked Spirit to cover his expenses. The response was vintage Sprit: It told him “no compensation or reimbursement is provided when flights are delayed or canceled due to weather” and then it added a phrase that I’ve begun to see with greater frequency these days.

“Even though you may disagree with our position,” it said, “there will be no further correspondence regarding this issue.”

In other words, shut up.

“I believe our original flight was canceled due to mechanical failure,” says Ludtke. If Spirit were a legacy airline, federal law would require it to cover his lodging and meal expenses and put him on the next available flight. But the airline’s contract of carriage gives it an out, forcing him to pay his own bills and endure a “long night with two little ones.”

I feel for him. I have three little ones, and as a consumer advocate specializing in travel issues, I’ve seen airlines fudge their reasons for a delay to weasel out of covering passengers’ expenses. Mostly, though, I’m bothered by Spirit’s hard “no” — a “no” that it wouldn’t reverse, even if I asked.

Spirit isn’t alone. When Chris Burr complained to US Airways about an involuntary downgrade on a flight from San Juan to Boston, the airline quickly grew tired of the back-and-forth. It offered him a 5,000-mile credit, which he didn’t think was sufficient.

“After thorough research of your travel records and our flight logs, I have found no reason to alter the original resolution,” a representative wrote. “We understand your frustration. We are considering this matter closed and there will be no further correspondence pertaining to this issue.”

“Looks like I’ve reached the end,” he told me.

Well, not exactly. When an airline tells you to shut your trap, you still have options.

Contact the cops. That would be the Transportation Department’s office of Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement. Airlines are federally regulated, and these are the regulators. If you can cite the rule being violated, DOT’s airline cops can ask the airline about the case, and if the carrier acted improperly, they can either penalize it or pressure it into compensating you.

Take them to court. If the compensation you’re looking for is below the small-claims court limit, you can talk to a judge about your problem. Anything above the small claims limit needs to go to a federal court, which is typically out of reach of the average passenger. One little caveat: While the airline might not bother to send a lawyer to small claims court, and lose by default, collecting can be problematic. I get a fair amount of requests from passengers who aren’t sure where to send the claim.

Call me. Normally, when I see the phrase “no further correspondence” it is, indeed, a lost cause. But not always. Here’s my email address. Although I can’t recall the last time that a hard “no” was overturned by yours truly, I will never give up. If I think there’s a strong case, I’ll mediate it.

Bottom line: Telling a customer to shut up — even if it’s an airline — is problematic. It is almost better to not respond to an email, and to let your silence speak for itself, than to instruct a customer to zip it.

Not only is it rude, but it also speaks volumes about how a company feels about the people who keep it in business.