Peter McKnight didn’t make it back from Sierra Leone last March — at least not the way he expected to.
McKnight, a high school science teacher, was returning to Newark from a 16-day volunteer mission to help rebuild infrastructure and strengthen education at a school in West Africa. The first leg was canceled because of a mechanical delay, and he had to wait 24 hours.
Then he took off for Brussels. And you can probably guess what happened then.
“Brussels Airport was bombed by terrorists,” he says. “I was evacuated from the airport, bused into the city of Brussels, then dropped off, stranded, with nothing but my passport and my credit card.”
McKnight’s case ought to be a slam-dunk, and we’ve been waiting for it to resolve itself. But our patience is wearing thin, and so is his.
No one helped him initially, he says. He found a hotel on his own in Leuven.
“I learned by watching the news that Brussels airport was closed indefinitely,” he says.
After waiting another 24 hours, it became clear that he couldn’t rely on United Airlines, the carrier through which he’d booked the tickets, to assist.
“United Airlines customer service was extremely difficult to get a hold of at the time,” he says. “I quickly used up all of my prepurchased international calling plan, plus a great deal of additional minutes while waiting on hold to talk to someone, numerous times.”
Flights out from neighboring airports were booking up fast.
“I made the decision to book a last seat out on another United Airlines flight through Expedia rather than continue to wait on hold for hours in the hope of speaking to someone from customer service,” he says. “That decision was made based on a travel waiver from the airline and posted to its site. This news led me to believe that I would easily be able to transfer my original ticket to a new one purchased after things settled down and call volume to customer service returned to more manageable levels.”
But if you’re reading this, you probably know that’s not how it works.
Turns out his travel agency had canceled his return ticket and failed to tell him about it.
“I’ve spoken to them several times, and they have assured me they’ve done all they can to help me in my situation,” he says. “They have yet to receive the refund for the unused portion of the original ticket.”
McKnight was in Sierra Leone to help, and now he’s the one who needs help. He says the unused portion of the original ticket has yet to be refunded by United. But he doesn’t want a refund of the ticket; he wants the $3,000 refunded for tickets he had to buy in order to get home.
That’s a tall order.
Thing is, if I’d been in his situation — the aftermath of a crippling terrorist attack and no way of reaching the airline — I’d also book new tickets to get home. And EU 261, the European consumer protection law, says passengers whose flights are canceled should be able either to obtain reimbursement of their tickets or get rerouted “under satisfactory conditions,” and should be adequately cared for while awaiting a later flight. None of that appears to have happened.
Our advocacy team has reached out to United. We’re not sure if the reimbursement would work the way McKnight wants it to, but he may be entitled to some compensation under European consumer protection law.
And that’s the big takeaway for this story: There’s more than one way to approach a consumer problem like this. If it feels wrong, chances are there’s a rule or regulation that addresses it. But it might not be the one you think.
One way or the other, we’re going to help him. We’ll update the story when we have a resolution.