Q: My husband and I were evacuated from our home because of the big fires in California. With only the clothes on our backs, we called American Airlines to say we wouldn’t be able to make a trip we’d planned to celebrate my husband’s 70th birthday with relatives in Missouri. When we explained our situation, the airline officials refused our request for a refund. I was very surprised. Can you help us? —Annie King, Silverado Canyon, California
A: Corporations often stumble in times of crisis. Customer-service policies and telephone scripts aren’t crafted with catastrophic wildfires in mind. Adding to your problem, the airline industry is notorious for its poor customer service, as evidenced by an abundance of submissions to On Your Side dealing with problems such as lost baggage, flight cancellations, and outrageous ticket policies. But once they figure out which way the cinders are blowing, even business behemoths have been known to do the right thing—if only in the name of good public relations.
Predictably, when we tried to get a live person on the phone at American Airlines, we ran into obstacles. Not only were relevant telephone numbers as hard to find as decent legroom in economy class; the main customer-service contact was an e-mail address! So I tunneled around the airline’s website and finally struck pay dirt. In a two-year-old press release, I found a cell phone number for the corporate communications department. No one answered, though I was able to leave a detailed message concerning your situation. That little bit of AARP elbow grease was apparently sufficient: within 24 hours American Airlines agreed to a full refund for both your flights.
I also received a call from a company spokesperson, Tim Smith, who told me the airline had decided to create a special refund policy for customers affected by the California fires. (Editor’s note: After 13 days in a motel, King and her husband were allowed back into their home, which they were happy to find intact.)
Here are some tips to avoid future air-travel troubles.
Book directly with the airline Online booking sites and travel agents often sell discounted tickets that come with tight restrictions and additional fees if you want to change your itinerary.
Buy a transferable ticket It may run an extra 10 to 15 percent, but it’s cheap insurance against rate increases and ticket-change fees that can top $100 with some carriers. You’re also less likely to get bumped if the plane is overbooked.
Make changes or cancellations as soon as possible The longer you wait, the more the change is likely to cost. Ask for fees to be waived in the case of a natural disaster or a personal emergency.
Join the airline’s mileage program It’s usually free, and it indicates you are a loyal customer, so the airline might just work a little harder to keep your business.
Total recovered by On Your Side: $796.40
Ron Burley is a consumer reporter and author of Unscrewed: The Consumer’s Guide to Getting What You Paid For (Ten Speed Press, 2006).