The travel industry moves to preempt customer complaints

When Jason Plott’s Western Caribbean cruise was delayed because of dense fog in Galveston, Tex., earlier this year, Carnival offered two possible resolutions before casting off: Either a full refund or an abridged cruise, which included an onboard credit and a discount off a future vacation.

Plott didn’t like either choice.

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“It wasn’t enough,” says Plott, a director at a Lubbock, Tex., software firm. His family couldn’t return home early without incurring an airline change fee. And the shortened cruise skipped their favorite ports of call and the offer meant that they’d have to take another Carnival cruise — something they were reluctant to do.

Travelers are faced with decisions like Plott’s every day. Something goes wrong — a flight is delayed, a hotel room is flooded or a rental car breaks down — and they’re made an offer that they have to accept or reject on the spot.

Increasingly, those offers are being generated with the help of technology, either directly or indirectly. Carnival relied on external technologies such as its Twitter account to keep passengers updated, as well as internal systems to proactively deliver a set of identical offers to every passenger on Plott’s cruise before they boarded, according to Aly Bello, a company spokeswoman. “Most of the guests chose the option of sailing on the modified voyage,” she says.

Another new way in which technology is used to preemptively offer compensation is during an airline mechanical delay. Some carriers now e-mail apologies to customers before they land at their destination, hoping to avert a lengthy post-flight negotiation.

That happened to Candice Sabatini, whose American Airlines flight from New York to Paris was delayed because of a mechanical problem with her aircraft. The six-hour delay meant she would miss an important meeting in Paris.

“My plan was to write to American and ask for fair compensation,” she says. “They beat me to the punch and sent me an e-mail apologizing and saying that they’re giving me 5,000 bonus miles for my troubles.”

Like Plott, Sabatini wasn’t happy with the initial offer. Although American wasn’t contractually required to offer any more than it had, she felt that as a gold-level frequent flier, she was owed more.

An optimist might see these automated compensation offers as a genuine effort by companies to improve their customer service. After all, what could be better than touching down at your destination, firing up your iPhone and finding a letter of apology from your airline before you have to ask for anything? Or boarding a ship and finding that the cruise line had already tried to remedy your problem?

But a cynic might view this as just the latest in a long series of initiatives to streamline and automate functions that used to be handled by a real person, in an attempt to offer customers the least possible compensation when something goes wrong.

At a time like this, say experts, it’s more important than ever to evaluate the merits of your grievance and to appeal your case to the right person.

“You have to talk with a manager,” says Holly Schroth, a negotiating expert and senior lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley. “The first person you’re likely to talk to is charged with making you go away. They want to brush you off.”

People who deal with dispute resolution say that the sooner you talk with someone in authority — and preferably in person — the greater your chances of skipping the automated systems that can generate lowball offers. But they’re quick to add that a manager should only be called when the situation warrants it.

“A customer shouldn’t demand to see the supervisor or general manager every time there is a problem,” says Gary Poon, author of “The Corporate Counsel’s Guide to Mediation.” “Customers should exercise their own discretion over whether or not to go up the corporate ladder.”

That’s true, too. While travel companies are concerned with their reputations, they are understandably reluctant to give away the store. Poon recommends asking a series of questions before launching an appeal, including: How bad is the problem? Can I live with the amount being offered or do I need to demand more? How much trouble am I willing to go through in order to get the amount I think I deserve?

“What’s the best outcome you can reasonably hope for?” he asks.

For Sabatini, the problem was worth an appeal in writing. But a careful review of American Airlines’ contract of carriage — the legal agreement between her and the airline — suggested that it owed her nothing for the lengthy delay. She has put her appeal in writing and is awaiting the outcome.

Plott and his family reluctantly accepted the shortened Carnival cruise, but instead of appealing to the cruise line for extra compensation, he decided to dispute the charges on his card. The reason? Carnival didn’t refund his port charges for the missed stops, as it had promised.

“I’ll let American Express decide how much to pay them,” he says. “I don’t anticipate a full refund. I’m sure they’ll get something, but I was fed up with the runaround from customer service.”

(Photo: Andrew Canter/Flickr Creative Commons)