South African Airways extorts additional fare at departure

Last week I took a quick jaunt over to South Africa and Mauritius. The trip overall was great and I’ll be sharing plenty from it in the coming days, but there is one part that I’m still struggling to comprehend: On the day of departure I was told by South African Airways (“SAA”) that I was on the hook for hundreds of dollars in additional costs in order to make my trip.

The problem stemmed from a schedule change that SAA instituted. Schedule changes happen; I get that. The amazing thing to me in this case was that the airline chose to disavow all responsibility for accommodations when they made the change. If I wanted to travel I was on the hook for all costs associated with their change. This was apparently non-negotiable.

I was notified of the change only 4 days prior to departure. Two of those days were the weekend when apparently no changes could be made to the ticket because their support group was closed. By the time that desk opened up and I was able to get through we were basically inside 24 hours to departure so changes could only be handled at the airport. Knowing that it would be a mess I got to the airport early – 5 hours early – to deal with an agent and try to resolve the issue.

Their first offer was that we could fly standby on an earlier flight out the same departure day. We wouldn’t know if it had cleared (“Oh, just call back to the USA and check up on it”) and it would involve leaving 7 hours earlier than planned. Losing the only day I was to spend in Mauritius was not particularly appealing and the fact that it was standby made that option unacceptable.

Or we could take the original (now hour later) booked flight and spend the night in Johannesburg before continuing home, arriving 24 hours later. The costs for the additional time spent in Jo’burg would be solely mine; they would not assist with hotel costs at all. Despite the change being of their doing.

I suggested alternate routings, mostly on SAA and also using Star Alliance partners. Absolutely impossible was their reply as I would be changing the routing on the trip. Never mind that the change was required by their scheduling.

Ultimately their offer was that they would sell me a seat on a British Airways/Comair flight from Mauritius to Jo’burg that just happened to be at the same time as the SAA flight was originally booked. For just $305 I could actually keep my original itinerary. It was borderline extortion at the airport and I had no problem claiming that to them. Sadly, however, we were now 2+ hours into the discussion and it was time to get checked in and start the trip. I paid the $305, collected my re-issued ticket and began the journey.

Once I made the extortion on Twitter I managed to rouse some other folks in their customer service group. This started a string of emails that appeared to hold promise. That appearance was apparently a mirage as nothing positive came from the conversations. Some choice comments from their position include:

Understandably, our industry’s revenue environment has permanently changed, and we must operate our airline accordingly…. Please know I will be sharing your feedback with our Network Planning and Analysis leadership teams for their future consideration and internal review.

OK…so you’ll file a paper on it and in the meantime I’m still out $305. Thanks for nothing. The emails continued a few more times and the only assurances I received were that they really cared about me as a customer and that they “treat any report of customer dissatisfaction very seriously.” Apparently not seriously enough to actually make the customer whole, however.

There were a few more emails and I’m glad that they took the time to respond. I would have been much more impressed, however, had they acknowledged that they were actually at fault rather than leaving me on the hook for hundreds of dollars in costs.

The in-flight service was top-notch and I would have no qualms about recommending SAA in that regard. But the ground handling was abysmal and the nasty surprise of being charged $305 extra at the airport for a ticket that was previously fully paid and confirmed was unconscionable. Such a surprise on the day of travel is not the way customers should be treated.

It is going to take a lot to convince me to try SAA again. Sad, because the product really is quite pleasant.

UPDATE (4 April 2011): Well, SAA finally realized the error of their ways. I got my money back!

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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.


  1. Sounds like a chargeback to your american express card is in order… at least that is how. I would handle it if they wont.

  2. Agree on the chargeback approach. LAN extorted me in a similar fashion on some baggage fees last year, and a chargeback notice from Citibank got the money refunded quickly.

  3. You can tell the folks at SAA that this flyer (and other readers) won’t be flying SAA. They can shove it up their you know whats.

  4. They finally realized the error of their ways. After “escalating the issue within the organization” I got a call informing me that they would be refunding the money. Took longer than it should. But glad that it was righted in the end.

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