A $1,100 “cancellation penalty” when Paris was on strike?

Gail Satzberg and her husband took their granddaughters on a European cruise, anticipating a three-day stay in Paris after the end of the cruise. But conditions in Paris led them to change their minds – and to embark on a two-month journey in search of a refund.

The cruise ship departed from and was scheduled to return to England, but the Satzbergs had planned to disembark at Le Havre and take a train to Paris for a three-day stay, where they would fly on British Airways from Paris to London to catch their flight home to the U.S.

But the day before they were scheduled to disembark from the ship, they learned that a number of French services and professions were stopped by actual or threatened strikes, including train service, trash collection, pilots, and air traffic controllers. In addition, the Seine River was about to overflow and flood the surrounding areas.

Faced with these circumstances, the Satzbergs decided to cancel their visit to France and return to England on the cruise ship, where they would catch their originally-scheduled flight home. They notified their travel agent, who contacted British Airways to cancel the Paris-London leg of their flights.

To their shock, British Airways not only refused to refund the Satzbergs their airfares, it charged them a “cancellation penalty” of $1,100. Satzberg felt that the penalty was unreasonably high, particularly in view of the conditions in Paris that led to her family’s decision to abort their visit to France.

And that raises some questions: Was British Airways engaging in price-gouging by charging such a high penalty? Is it even reasonable for British Airways to charge a “cancellation penalty” at all?

Satzberg contacted British Airways to ask that the penalty be refunded. Its agent replied:

Thanks for contacting us regarding your recent booking with us from Paris …
I completely understand why you’re unhappy with the fee we charge when you ask us for a refund of your ticket. We know there are times when your plans change, however it’s been difficult for us to take on the extra administration fees and other overheads when our customers book and then cancel. This means we have to pass some of these costs on and I’m sorry to disappoint you.

I completely understand how frustrated you must have been when your flight from Baltimore was delayed, especially as you missed your ride to the ship. I’m so sorry for the problems we caused you.

Our Operations team investigate the reason for every flight delay and this tells us where we’re going wrong. From what you’ve told me about your delayed flight, I absolutely agree we’ve let you down.

We always want to maintain a stable operation and we’ll only delay an aircraft if we really have to, particularly as it affects our customers and their plans. If you speak to a staff member at the airport, or call our contact centers, we’ll do our best to rearrange your travel plans to suit you.

We’re very grateful you’ve taken the time to let us know what happened. It’s only through your comments we’re able to focus on areas where we need to improve and I know our Operations Manager will value your insight.

This response totally missed the mark. Satzberg’s request for a refund had nothing whatsoever to do with a delayed flight to Baltimore and didn’t address the actual circumstances that led to her canceling her Paris-to-London flight. She tried contacting British Airways again, only to get a similar response the second time.

Satzberg or her travel agent (who presumably was also trying to help her get the cancellation penalty refunded) might have escalated her complaint to executives at British Airways. But since she had no success in reversing the penalty, Satzberg turned to our advocacy team for help.

Disappointingly, many airlines, including British Airways, are looking to pad their bottom lines by charging their customers ancillary fees, including baggage fees, ticket change fees, cancellation fees, insurance, and whatever else they can think of. And even more unfortunately, they often get away with it by sticking language in their contracts of carriage that allows it.

British Airways is no exception. Its general conditions of carriage provide that

Taxes, fees and charges change constantly and can be imposed or altered after the date we have issued your ticket. If they change or if a new tax, fee or charge is imposed after we have issued your ticket, you will have to pay us any increase.

And unfortunately, British Airways not only stood by its refusal to reverse the penalty, but also suggested that Satzberg take her case to arbitration.

Satzberg may dispute the penalty with her credit card company or pursue legal action against British Airways — but it’s unclear that she has a legal case against the airline. We can only wish her the best of success and offer our regrets that we weren’t able to assist her. Although the airlines are within their rights to charge excessive fees, it is poor customer service and doesn’t feel right to passengers.

Should British Airways have waived the cancellation fees for Gail Satzberg?

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