When Connie Cullen books a vacation with her American Express card, the resort charges her. Then it charges her again, and again. And again. Why won’t it fix the error? “Charged four times for one vacation. Why won’t American Express fix this?”
Remember last year’s soaring gas prices? Annette Lazzarotto will never forget them. She paid $1,390 for a single tank of gas on a visit to Italy. What’s worse, her bank insisted the charges were legit, and billed her for the full amount.
It happened at a gas station on Via Cassia near our hotel. As it was “my turn” to pay for the gas and not noticing this error, I signed the receipt which was then charged to my Visa card. While obtaining the gas we noticed the attendant to be very different from all other stops at gas stations. He appeared nervous, rushing around and gruff with us. Although curious, we ignored the behavior as we always present ourselves with deference while traveling as visitors in foreign countries.
Sure enought, when Lazzarotto returned to the States, she found a $1,390 charge on her Visa bill.
I contacted my Schools Federal Credit Union Visa, which obtained a copy of the signed receipt and explained because it was signed they could not help me. I was told I had to contact the company myself regarding the dispute. I found the station and the parent station and through a Web search e-mailed representatives who admitted the error and initially discussed the process of crediting my account through several e-mails of various department levels at the parent company-ERG Petroli SPA.
I then provided Visa with all the copies of e-mails from this company in Italy (as my problem was forwarded to several staff). All e-mails demonstrated the company’s willingness to credit or provide a money wire to my bank account. I was then told by my bank that now that I had obtained agreement to credit the money they would take over and handle it.
After the Visa dispute department apparently “lost” my entire file, I was asked to send it again through my Credit Union in February. I provided copies of all the documents to Visa only to receive a letter this June that the ERG Petroli corporate office does not have authority to issue credits on behalf of the individual merchant location, and the location refused to issue the credit.
Well, the Fair Credit Billing Act doesn’t protect you for overseas purchases, so Lazzarotto needed to take the matter up with one of the companies — Visa, Schools Federal Credit Union or ERG Petroli. I recommended that she take her bank to small claims court to recover the $1,000 or so she was charged.
Yesterday, I heard back from her.
The process was quite simple as the courts provide online forms to complete with support for writing the “demand” letter. I sent this to my credit union who informed me they would turn it over to their attorneys. Within a week, a CEO at the credit union called me to say they would pay the charge and “they do not like their customers to have to experience fraud like that.” Interesting they were letting me experience that fraud for 16 months as I fought with them and their Visa dispute department to no avail.
I learned to check and keep all receipts as I travel and to not hesitate to use the small claims court process even against a large company.
That’s a great lesson learned — and a long overdue, but happy, ending.
First it was Aloha Airlines. Then it was charter carrier Champion Air. Today it’s ATA. Within a week, three airlines have been grounded, leaving thousands of passengers stranded.
Well, I’ve got bad news and more bad news. Federal law doesn’t require another airline to accept your ticket. (A temporary law enacted after 9/11 forced airlines to accept stranded passengers on a space-available basis, but it quietly expired).
As a practical matter, some airlines are coming to the aid of travelers. For example, United Airlines is helping Aloha Airlines passengers, but firsthand reports suggest some United employees are confused about the terms of accepting Aloha’s tickets.
“I talked to different agents and I was getting a different story every time,” said Magdalena Platte, a passenger from Reno, Nev. “One of the options was to rebook the ticket at discounted price of $994 — which was laughable, since Expedia offers those same tickets at $945.”
But wait … there’s even more bad news. If you paid for your ticket with anything other than a credit card, your chances of seeing your money or miles are slim to none.
For example, in ATA’s case, travelers who paid by cash or check are ineligible for refunds, according to a statement on its Web site. “These customers may be able to obtain a full or partial refund for their unused tickets by submitting a claim in ATA’s Chapter 11 proceedings,” it says. “Information about submitting a claim will be available at the following website.”
Note the use of the term “may.” In fact, passengers are at the bottom of the list of claimants in a bankruptcy court. Chances are, you’ll see pennies on the dollar — if that — after the carrier liquidates.
And what if you paid by credit card? Don’t listen to the talking heads on TV who assure you that you’ll be protected if you paid by plastic. Maybe you will. Maybe you won’t.
What these so-called “experts” often fail to mention is that when it comes to these kinds of disputes, the Fair Credit Billing Act only protects people who have made purchases in their home state or within 100 miles of their current billing address. (Some credit card companies regard these issues as “quality of goods and services” disputes rather than billing errors, so they refuse to reverse the charges.)
In other words, you might get a refund. But don’t count on it.
Same thing goes for tickets bought through award miles. Might as well kiss ’em goodbye.
So what should you do?
Get a plan ‘B’. If you were planning to fly on an airline that’s grounded, call your travel agent immediately or try to make alternate arrangements with an airline that says it will accept your ticket. At the time of this writing, no other airline had come forward to say it would help stranded ATA passengers, but I imagine a carrier like Southwest Airlines will probably do what United has done for Aloha.
Run an airline ‘health check’. Is your airline showing signs of imminent bankruptcy? If it has removed its top executive recently, scaled back routes or issued an excessively cheery press release in the recent past, chances are you’re flying on a distressed carrier. You might consider making alternate plans. I can’t guarantee your airline will be there when you need it.
Get professional advice. A competent travel professional can help you navigate the ins and outs of a bankruptcy-ridden airline industry. Before you book your next airline ticket, check with a travel pro and find out what you should do. It’s advice worth paying for.
One other thing that’s worth noting. The current wave of bankruptcies are healthy for the airline industry. They’re weeding out the weakest air carriers and making room for new airlines with sustainable business models. This is part of a perfectly normal cycle we’ve seen many times before.
The trick, of course, is to not get stuck in the middle of it.