Why won’t China Southern Airlines let me correct this booking mistake?

When Howard Lasnik tries to fix his ticketing error on China Southern Airlines, its agents repeatedly refuse to assist him, leaving him with unusable tickets. Can our advocates help him find his way through this booking snafu?

Question: My wife and I self-booked two tickets on China Southern Airlines from Boston to Guangzhou, China, via New York. We intended to make our connection in New York at Kennedy Airport, but by mistake we booked the first leg of our trip to LaGuardia Airport. This would allow us only one hour to make our connection. Once we received our confirmation, we immediately saw the error. The confirmation indicated that ticketing changes were available, free of charge.

Although China Southern Airlines’ website indicates that passengers can change their reservations online, the site responds to anyone trying to change a booking that changes can only be done by telephone. We called the numbers on the “Contact us” page of the site for the New York and Los Angeles offices, as well as a number in China, without being able to reach anyone.

When we finally spoke to a human agent, the agent told us that ticketing changes could only be made by email, not by telephone, and gave us two email addresses, one of which did not work. We received a response from the other email address indicating to us that changes could only be made by telephone!

We called numerous times, but half the time we could not reach anyone. The other half of the time, we reached persons who told us that their department was not responsible for ticketing changes, that the booking could not be changed at all, or that it could only be changed at a cost of several hundred dollars per passenger. Although we quoted the language on our confirmation that claimed that ticketing changes were available, free of charge, all the agents to whom we spoke responded that “it didn’t matter what the confirmation said.” Either we couldn’t change the ticketing, or we had to pay an exorbitant fee to do so.

One of the agents claimed that China Southern Airlines could not change the tickets because the Boston to New York leg of our itinerary was code-shared on Delta. We also tried calling Delta, whose agent claimed that Delta could not change the tickets “because they were on China Southern Airlines stock.” China Southern Airlines’ agents also told us that we could not cancel the flights and rebook online or by telephone — we would have to “submit a request” to cancel and they would “decide” whether to refund our money. We chose not to do this as it sounded extremely risky.

Can you help us find our way through this ticketing snafu? Why is correcting our ticketing error so much trouble? — Howard Lasnik, Arlington, Mass.

Answer: It certainly sounds as though China Southern Airlines has been using every possible excuse it can come up with as a reason not to change your tickets. You were jerked around at every turn by its agents — some of whom should have answered the telephone, and at least one of whom should have honored the airline’s promise that you could change your tickets free of charge.

China Southern Airlines’ general conditions of international carriage contains the following language regarding voluntary ticket changes:

11.6.1.4. Change fee shall be paid by passenger who requires flight change of his/her own will. When the changed flight is not performed as scheduled, the ticket can be refunded free of charge while the previously paid change fee shall not be refunded.
11.7 Voluntary refund
Refund beyond the limitations in 11.6 belongs to voluntary refund.
11.7.1 Voluntary refund abides by the following rules:
11.7.1.1 If no portion of the ticket has been used, an amount equal to the fare paid, less any applicable service charges or cancellation fees…

So I think that there was some confusion about whether or not a change fee would apply to your reservation, because this language does allow for change fees. But since your confirmation indicated that they would not be assessed if you changed your reservations, you should have been able to change your flight free of charge as promised. Alternatively, you should have been able to request and receive a refund following cancellation, whether online, on the phone, by email, or any other means. You might also have considered purchasing travel insurance that would have covered the costs of any cancellation before booking your flights.

You posted in our forums about your case, where our forum advocates agreed with you that there is no possibility of making your connection with the tickets you had booked. They suggested that you might charter a helicopter to travel from Kennedy to LaGuardia Airport. Then you asked our advocacy team for assistance, and we reached out to Delta on your behalf to find out if its agents could assist you.

Your case has a happy ending. Ultimately, you decided to cancel your reservation. But before canceling it, you called your credit card company (Chase) and asked whether you would be protected if China Southern Airlines imposed a cancellation fee. Chase’s agent assured you that you would be protected, so you went ahead with the cancellation online.

After a couple of hours, you received a response from China Southern Airlines requesting copies of your passports, which you provided. You then received a confirmation that China Southern Airlines would refund your booking at no charge. And you rebooked your flights on Delta for a similar price.

The moral of your story is to be extremely cautious when making online purchases, particularly for travel; to either use a travel agent or to book only with companies that you’re familiar with (since you don’t seem to have been familiar with China Southern Airlines before booking your flights) and to double-check that your booking is correct before confirming it.

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