US DoT smacks British Airways around


It seems that the US Department of Transportation has been busy lately looking out for their constituents – the travelling public.  Yesterday they announced record fines against Continental and Mesaba (aka Delta) for their roles in the fiasco in Rochester, MN over the summer.  And today they’ve issued a rather scathing ruling against British Airways.

The topic of the BA rebuke was the unilateral revocation of tickets that the carrier sold in early October for travel from the United States to India.  British Airways claimed that the fare was a mistake, not just a good sale, and 72 hours after selling customers the flights simply cancelled all the tickets that had been issued.  It turns out that the DoT decided that wasn’t really kosher.  Here’s what they had to say in an email just sent to all the folks who filed a complaint (the bolding is mine):

Dear Sir/Madam,

On behalf of the Aviation Consumer Protection Division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, I would like to thank you for contacting us regarding British Airways’ $40 base fare advertisement.  We view this matter very seriously and have conducted a full investigation over the cause, magnitude, and consequences of this incident.  From the information we have obtained, it is clear that British Airways’ unilateral cancellation of all the reservations made in response to its mistaken fare offer on October 2, 2009, has caused financial harm to a large number of consumers.  We believe that all airlines should accept some responsibility for even the erroneous fares they publish.  Thus, we believe that British Airways should compensate affected consumers to make them whole.  In response to our investigation and after consultation with my office, British Airways has posted guidelines for reimbursing passengers for expenses that they incurred in reliance on the erroneous fare offer, including fees for canceling a hotel or rental car reservation and restoring a previously cancelled flight reservation.   For details on who may qualify for compensation and how to file a claim with British Airways, please refer to the following webpage on British Airways’ website under "Travel News" link:
http://www.britishairways.com/travel/flightops/public/en_us

We appreciate the opportunity to assist you in resolving this matter.  If you have any question or concern, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

So even if BA chooses to push forward with the theory that is was a mistake they’re still on the hook for making customers whole.  This is great news for passengers.  It sets a very strong precedent that prevents airlines from abusing the system and simply deciding to change their mind after the fact once tickets have been issued.

Here – in part – is what British Airways is saying on their site:

British Airways is prepared to reimburse you for penalties imposed by an airline or ground service provider as a result of your cancellation of air or ground arrangements in reliance on your cancelled British Airways booking.  British Airways will also reimburse those passengers who necessarily incurred added air fare costs in restoring a pre-existing booking or reservation from the United States to India if that booking or reservation was abandoned as a result of making the cancelled booking on British Airways.  Further, if you have incurred any other out-of-pocket expense, British Airways Customer Relations will make appropriate reimbursement to you in circumstances where the losses were caused by reasonable reliance on a British Airways flight booked between the U.S. and India on October 2, 2009 and its subsequent cancellation.

Of course, there are still many outstanding questions that need to be answered.  Most notably, it does not appear that there is a clear-cut means to claim for the additional cost of booking a replacement ticket for the one that BA killed.  They will reimburse to restore one that was previously booked and then canceled out because of the sale, but it doesn’t seem that they are willing to simply pay the difference for customers to be able to fly if they didn’t have a ticket previously purchased that they chose to cancel as part of this sale.

Lots of open questions to say the least.  I will certainly be following through on the claim process that they’ve made available in an effort to be made whole on my purchase.  But this isn’t going to stop me from showing up at Small Claims Court next Thursday morning to make my case, unless, of course, they have paid me a settlement by then.  And now I’ve got some backing in the form of a finding by the DoT.  That should help my claim quite a bit.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

3 Comments

  1. I would make sure that they don't have a clause that states something to the effect of 'by accepting this claim to be made whole you waive your right to litigation" or something like that.

  2. Most settlements involve waiving a calim to future litigation and frequently also involve a gag order. I'm willing to accept both of those in exchange for being made whole. We'll have to see how that plays out on Thursday.

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