When a flight’s canceled, who’s responsible?

Question: I booked a ticket on United Airlines through Cheaptickets.com from Washington to Colorado Springs, Colo., recently. My reservation even appeared on the United Airlines website (I’m an elite-level customer on United).

All’s good, right? Five days before my flight, I checked and the reservation was gone. I went to Cheaptickets and the website had a note that my reservation was canceled. No notification — nothing.
Read more “When a flight’s canceled, who’s responsible?”

Hey, where’s my hotel room?

Question: I have a problem with a missing hotel reservation that I need your help with. I recently booked a room through Cheaptickets.com at the Executive Inn Airport in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., during the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show.

I prepaid for the room by credit card and I confirmed my reservation with Cheaptickets about a week before the trip. But when I checked in, I was told there was no record of the reservation.
I tried to contact Cheaptickets several times from the hotel lobby, but got through to a variety of representatives who either put me on hold or tried to transfer me to someone else.

Ultimately, I had to find another hotel room at a higher rate. I sent a letter outlining the problems with my experience to Cheaptickets’ Chicago office via certified mail. I also sent an email to them outlining my concerns and got an “auto reply” but no further response.

At this point, I would be satisfied to get the initial cost of my room at the Executive Inn refunded, if not the difference between my first hotel and the second one. Is this something I can get any help with? – Dave Bucher, Minneapolis

Answer: Cheaptickets should have honored your prepaid reservation. And if it couldn’t, it should have found a suitable hotel room instead of making you listen to elevator music while waiting on “hold.”

There are two possible explanations for why your reservation was lost. First, Cheaptickets and the hotel might have had a failure to communicate. That happens a lot. Some hotels still handle their confirmations by old-fashioned fax. And faxes can run out of paper or ink or the associate could enter the wrong dates in the property’s reservations system.

The hotel might have also accepted more reservations than it had, a practice called overbooking. Hotels use sophisticated property management systems that predict room demand, set prices and allow them to accept more reservations than rooms, because they calculate some guests won’t show up.

The system usually works, but when everyone tries to check in during the week of the boat show, the hotel would have to send you to another property at its expense, unless, of course, it can’t find your reservation.

That’s why it’s important to not only contact your online travel agency to confirm your reservation, but also the hotel. If the Executive Inn doesn’t have your reservation, what’s the point of a Cheaptickets confirmation? I would be reluctant to accept any verification unless it comes directly from the airline, cruise line or hotel. The paperwork from your online travel agency is helpful, but you shouldn’t rely on it.

I think you could have pressed your point with the hotel and Cheaptickets. Don’t allow someone to place you on hold. There are polite ways of doing this. Tell the representative your cell phone is almost out of battery, and that you need to speak with a supervisor. (I don’t know about you, but my cell phone is always almost out of juice.)

You could have also asked to speak with a manager at the Executive Inn. If you had a printout of your confirmation, you might have been able to negotiate to be “walked” to another hotel, meaning the hotel would have covered at least part of your hotel bill.

I contacted Cheaptickets on your behalf, and it credited your card for the full amount of your prepaid room at the Executive Inn. An apology and a refund for the price difference on your second hotel would have been nice too, but at least you got your money back.

Online travel agencies: bad, and getting worse

There’s bad news for anyone who is considering booking a trip online: the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index from the University of Michigan finds customer satisfaction has fallen to an all-time low. The online travel industry’s aggregate scored slipped from 76 to 75 last year, a drop of 1.3 percent. It’s the lowest reading since the ACSI began tracking online travel agencies in 2002.

Here’s how the major online agencies did:

Expedia (75) – 3.8 percent
Orbitz (73) -2.7 percent
Travelocity (73) -1.4 percent

(Only Priceline is on the rise, posting an increase of one point, or 1.4 percent, to 73. That’s up 10.6 percent from 2002.)

It’s interesting to compare these numbers to the Transportation Department’s annual complaint data. (Normally, people don’t know to gripe about bad service received from an online agency, so the fact that these numbers even exist must say something about the state of online travel.)

1. Orbitz (45)
2. Travelocity (35)
3. Expedia (30)
4. Cheaptickets (22)
5. Cheapoair/Priceline (tie) (16)

Why is customer satisfaction on the skids? The survey offers a few theories.

Online travel is an industry in flux. The “big three” online travel aggregator sites – Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity – once had a competitive edge on all fronts. They offered the convenience of booking air, hotel and car from one site with search capabilities and comparative information not offered elsewhere. And, they were offer able to offer discounted pricing not available directly from travel supplier sites. But this is no longer the case.

At the same time, customers are holding online agencies responsible for bad travel experiences, even when they aren’t directly to blame.

Fulfillment is out of the control of these companies. They may sell a ticket and provide excellent service, but if a change needs to be made or there is a problem with the schedule, they may bear the brunt of consumers’ ire, instead of or in addition to the airlines, hotels, or car rental companies involved. These aggregators are trying to innovate with traveler updates, travel support, and unique features like Travelocity’s Road Trip Wizard, but it may not be enough to stave off eventual marginalization.

Marginalization. That’s another way of saying one of these online agencies will go “buh-bye.”

A closer look at the best and worst airlines of 2007

Here’s an important footnote to the airline industry’s year from hell. A closer look at the Transportation Department’s 2007 report card shows some carriers were likelier to lose your luggage, deny you boarding, get you to your destination late and provoke a written complaint. And some airlines were above it all.

Here’s a birds-eye view of the DOT’s report, by category. I’ve broken it down into in an easy-to-understand blog posting so that you can sort the winners from the sinners and make a more informed booking decision.

Which airline is likeliest to lose my luggage?

No surprises here. The Hawaiian carriers outperformed everyone else. Low fare carriers did better than legacy airlines. And regional carriers continued their underperforming streak.

Mishandled baggage (reports per 1,000 passengers)

Best

1. Hawaiian Airlines (3.41)
2. Aloha Airlines (3.88)
3. AirTran Airways (4.06)
4. Northwest Airlines (5.01)
5. JetBlue Airways (5.23)

Worst

1. American Eagle (13.55)
2. Comair (11.40)
3. Atlantic Southeast (11.24)
4. Skywest (10.87)
5. Mesa Airlines (10.46)

The industry average for mishandled baggage was 7.03, compared with 6.73 in 2006. Two years ago, the top performer was Hawaiian (3.14) and the airline with the worst record was Atlantic Southeast (17.37).

Which airline will oversell its flight and bump me?

Among the best performers, there were no surprises except one: United Airlines. Legacy carriers routinely overbook their flights and then deny passengers boarding. But United seems to have gotten its act together. Delta, on the other hand, does not. It joined the bottom-feeding regional carriers.

Involuntary denied boardings per 10,000 passengers.

Best

1. JetBlue Airways (.02)
2. AirTran Airways (.15)
3. Hawaiian Airlines (.17)
4. Aloha (.29)
5. United (.71)

Worst

1. Atlantic Southeast (4.50)
2. Comair (3.15)
3. Delta Air Lines (2.47)
4. Skywest (1.69)
5. Mesa Airlines (1.54)

The industry average last year was 1.12 involuntary denied boardings per 10,000 passengers, compared with 1 in 2006. JetBlue was the best performer in 2006, with .07 involuntary denied boardings, and Atlantic Southeast lost in the category, with 4.47 IDBs per 10k passengers.

Which airline am I most likely to complain about?

The legacy airlines were clear winners – I mean, losers – in the complaints category. If you were flying internationally, British Airways led by a wide margin.

Domestic

1. US Airways (1,828)
2. American Airlines (1,617)
3. United Airlines (1,540)
4. Delta Air Lines (1,325)
5. Northwest Airlines (768)

International

1. British Airways (285)
2. Alitalia (173)
3. Air France (152)
4. Lufthansa (84)
5. Iberia (72)

Which online agencies am I most likely to complain about?

This is a relatively new category for the DOT report card. I would expect next year’s numbers to be higher, now that passengers are aware they can gripe about their online travel agency, too.

1. Orbitz (45)
2. Travelocity (35)
3. Expedia (30)
4. Cheaptickets (22)
5. Cheapoair/Priceline (tie) (16)

Which airline runs on time?

Again, the Hawaiian carriers and low-fare airlines dominated, with a surprise appearance by Delta. Rounding out the bottom are two legacy carriers and the usual suspects — regional carriers.

Overall percentage of reported flight operations arriving on time

Best

1. Hawaiian (93.3)
2. Aloha (92.2)
3. Southwest (80.1)
4. Frontier (77.6)
5. Delta (76.9)

Worst

1. Atlantic Southeast (64.7)
2. Comair (67.9)
3. US Airways (68.7)
4. American (68.7)
5. American Eagle (69.1)

The industry average for 2007 was 73.4 percent, well below the historical average (over the last 20 years) of 78.3 percent.

What to make of these numbers?

If you want a quality flying experience in the lower 48, go for a low-fare carrier. If you’re into pain, try a legacy carrier or better yet, a regional airline.