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Should There Be Mercy?

Cindy Loose

A recent email raises again the question: When there are rules, should airlines just stick with them, or should mercy ever be shown?

The email was from a woman who took her family of four from Washington on British Airways to visit relatives in India. On past visits, all flights back were in the evening. The woman, when she got her reservations, glanced at the return, saw 8:40, immediately assumed p.m. and forgot about it. Unbeknownst to her, last year India and the U.K. made a deal that more than doubled the number of flights, so now international flights are leaving morning and evening.

On the day of her family's flight home, the woman looked again at the ticket and noticed it was for 8:40 a.m. meaning it was gone. There was still room on an evening flight, but the tickets the family held were no good, and they had to pay $5,000 to get home on new one-way tickets.

On the one hand, it was her mistake, and the tickets were nonrefundable. It's your duty to know what you've bought. On the other hand, if she took seats that weren't going to be sold anyway -- I mean how many people fly from India to Washington on a few hours' notice -- maybe mercy was appropriate.

What do you think?

By Cindy Loose |  October 17, 2007; 10:02 AM ET  | Category:  Air Travel , Cindy Loose
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Far too often airlines (and other businesses) are short-sighted. While the airline was within its rights to do this, it would have built a lot of loyalty and goodwill to have shown some mercy for her honest mistake. Instead, they chose to go for the short-term profit. The result is that this woman, her family and friends, and numerous people who hear her story with a negative impression of this airline and aversion to flying with them in the future. In the long run, that will probably cost the airline a lot more than $5,000.

Posted by: Jerry | October 17, 2007 11:37 AM

If the airline can get them on a flight, of course they should. It's just ridiculously short-sighted of them not to. Charge a little change fee for stupidity (cmon, people, read your tickets), but get people where they're going.

Posted by: h3 | October 17, 2007 11:47 AM

It says a lot about where we are on air travel these days, that the question "Should the airline show mercy?" is even asked. This family paid $5,000 for their tickets; that should come with some goodwill.

Isn't "mercy" what one usually requests of the deity, or of one's executioner? A telling choice of words.

Posted by: Lisa | October 17, 2007 11:54 AM

She was flying on British Airways anyway whether she and family were to fly home on the original return date or fly home on another return date, an additional $5,000 should not have been charged. She originally paid to fly British Airways, not switch to another airline. As you stated Cindy, "There was still room on an evening flight". It's another way for British Airways to get more money. She made a mistake. We are all human. Even machines make mistakes.

Posted by: J | October 17, 2007 12:08 PM

Yes, there should have been a charge. Should it have been $5000 for new tickets at the last minute? I don't think so. Charge her whatever it would have cost to change the tickets ahead of time (come on people, read what you buy), but don't charge her for a new one-way flight.

Also, it's probably a moot point, but do we know how much she paid for the tickets originally? One would think it was probably *less* than the $5000 she was charged for a last-minute, one-way flight....

Posted by: Anonymous | October 17, 2007 12:33 PM

Wait a sec....the airline should lose money because the customer is an idiot?

They purchased...and confirmed the itinerary.

Is it possible she KNEW it was A.M., and wanted to stay longer visiting?

****last year India and the U.K. made a deal****


All her fault. Airline is in the right.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 17, 2007 1:16 PM

I am no fan of the airline industry by any stretch, but are we getting the full story? I am slightly skeptical that the airline charged $5,000 for the woman's mistake, but who knows. I am very surprised that you identified the airline in your blog but failed to identify the woman - it implies confirmation of her story. Couldn't you have just called it an "unspecified airline?" As I read it, the story isn't substantiated. This is the scary thing about blogs - it's no better than an anecdote on Trip Advisor.

Look, whenever I book flights, I go over the itinerary very carefully BEFORE I agree to purchase them. That means going over the airport info, dates, and times and making sure there are no errors. I would think she'd be even more cautious on a long-haul flight with four tickets!

Honestly, this sounds like the story of someone who is a bit, how shall we say, absent-minded. Wouldn't you also advise your readers to call and confirm an international flight the day before it leaves? So many good practices could have prevented this event.

But what now? What does that customer want? At the most charitable level, maybe it is to warn us of her ignorance? Okay, lesson learned. Or does she seriously want compensation from the airline?

Posted by: Girl with a Guitar | October 17, 2007 1:46 PM

Dear Girl with a guitar--
You are definately right that passengers should very carefully look at their itinerary, and they should check on their flight the day before. As to her story being unsubstantiated: In fact I did speak with an airline official about this specific case, and the official expressed your point of view that it's the customer's duty to make sure they've checked their itinerary.

Posted by: cindy loose | October 17, 2007 2:17 PM

IMO the customer should have to pay the full cost of the tickets for the second flight as if she was a new customer off the street.

At the same time, this highlights the utter stupidity of airline pricing. Also, it is a huge argument in favor of ending overbooking. If the airline is not going to provide any compensation to passengers who miss the flight, then they have no reason to overbook because they are getting their money if the seats are empty.

Posted by: Dennis | October 17, 2007 2:41 PM

Considering what a plane ticket from Washington to India costs, I think I would examine them carefully. I can imagine British Airways wants something for those four empty seats they flew 8000 miles.

Posted by: Folgers | October 17, 2007 2:48 PM

Well she learned that lesson the hard way!

Posted by: lol | October 17, 2007 3:38 PM

Dennis--You make an intesting point about why airlines need to overbook if they charge you whether you fly or not. Are they seeking to earn money on every possible seat twice, or are there really a lot of people who buy non-refundable tickets. Maybe the rule should be this: You may not overbook more seats than you have passengers with refundable tickets.

Posted by: cindy loose | October 17, 2007 8:52 PM

Why in the world should they have to buy new tickets?!? BA should have let them fly standby - just sit around at the gate until the last minute, and plop them on whatever empty seats are available. The alternative -- what BA did here and what some of these posters are suggesting -- is just insane. Do people honestly believe that if you ever miss your homeward-bound flight for any reason (car accident, health problem, mistake by somebody else, just to take 3 obvious examples), then you are s.o.l. and have to buy new tickets to get home?

All the critiques about how they should have been more careful miss the point. Of course they should have been more careful. But they messed up, and the question is how should an airline best deal with an honest mistake. When you're stuck in India with no means of getting home, the airlines have you over the barrel. BA could have charged a $2000 per person "no show fee" for all we know and they would have had to pay it. I guess that's free enterprise and some posters here would think it's fair.

Posted by: Andy | October 17, 2007 11:16 PM

Huh? So Andy thinks airlines should make accommodations for anyone with any reason to change their flight with no penalty? Okey dokie. Thanks, "Andy", or dare we say - the woman who sent WaPo her complaint.

Here's how I see it. Airlines probably get sob stories regularly. Are you saying they should have a lenient policy for these circumstances? How can you tell the difference?

It is not the airline's resposibility for ensuring the customer knows his schedule. This is sheer STUPIDITY on the part of the traveler! Now take your boarding pass stub and sit on it!

Posted by: Bernard | October 18, 2007 11:22 AM

Sorry Bernard, my name is actually Andy. And yes, I am saying airlines should have "a lenient policy for these circumstances." I never said anything about penalties and indeed have no problem with charging these passengers a hundred bucks or whatever to change the flight. But if an airline has the empty seats on its plane, there is no rational reason I can think of not to let its fare-paying customers sit in them. Recall, this woman and her family paid for their flight home, and then missed that flight. It is simple lunacy to require them to buy entirely new tickets.

You seem to believe that a passenger's "stupidity" automatically justifies imposing upon him or her whatever draconian measures the airline chooses to dish out. Again, I fail to understand why that result logically follows or is necessary. (Nor do I like the idea of having the average airline employee passing judgment on the mental faculties of the rest of us.) I suspect that the last sentence of your post shows your true motivation -- you enjoy seeing people you think are beneath you suffer. You're a big man.

Posted by: Andy | October 18, 2007 4:06 PM

There could be another reason the airline charged full price. If the original booked flight had been full, then BA may have given up the revenue from other passengers who would have taken that flight.

Posted by: me | October 18, 2007 5:42 PM

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