Question: I desperately need your help. I work in Hong Kong and I was supposed to report yesterday, but I'm stuck in Houston and at risk of losing my job. I traveled to Houston to visit my family. I bought tickets from Hong Kong to Los Angeles via Cathay Pacific, and domestic round trip tickets on Southwest onward from Los Angeles to Houston. These Southwest flights were timed around my international flights.
I didn't have internet access, so I couldn't check in online. I arrived at the airport in Houston and checked in two hours before my flight. At the check-in counter, the agent didn't tell me the flight was overbooked and I did not have a seat. I didn't realize that until I was at the gate ready to board but was denied.
Southwest asked for volunteers to give up their seats but only one person responded. I was left behind along with one other passenger, and I missed my international flight to Hong Kong.
Southwest compensated me $490 for not being able to get on the plane. However, it is definitely not enough to cover the cost of a new international ticket from Los Angeles to Hong Kong; my international ticket can't be changed or refunded.
The Southwest staff at the airport told me to contact the customer relations office in Dallas. They told me they already compensated me for my domestic flight and anything beyond that is not their responsibility.
I bought a ticket with Southwest and checked in on time. I don't see that I have done anything wrong in this matter to deserve what has happened to me. I am requesting that Southwest cover the cost of my international flight. Can you help?
-- Kristy Chan, Hong Kong
Answer: Chan was denied boarding because Southwest overbooked her Houston-Los Angeles flight, but the crux of her predicament wasn't so much being bumped but that she'd purchased separate tickets for her trip. When Chan contacted me, she was waiting around in Houston for a response from Southwest. I advised her to buy a new ticket to Hong Kong post haste so she wouldn't lose her job, because Southwest wasn't going to foot the bill for her new international flight.
Airlines overbook flights to offset no-shows, but sometimes they miscalculate and end up with too many people and too few seats on a given flight. U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) statistics show that in general, denied boarding rates have crept down over the last decade, but that's not much comfort to bumped fliers who end up missing work, family events or a chunk of vacation time. Southwest ranked ninth in bumping among major U.S. carriers in 2013, with an average of 1.06 customers denied boarding for every 10,000 passengers.
DOT rules require airlines to provide an explanation and compensation to bounced passengers. The amount of the compensation depends on how long you'll be delayed from reaching your destination. If you'll get there within an hour of your originally schedule arrival time, you're not entitled to anything. For a delay of more than two hours, or if the airline doesn't make alternate arrangements for you, you can receive 400% of your one-way fare, to a maximum of $1,300. There are, of course, exceptions and stipulations, including whether you check in on time.
Although Chan followed all the rules and did check in on time, almost two hours before her scheduled departure time, by then the flight was already full.
"All seats were already assigned when she checked in," says Southwest representative Whitney Eichinger.
Southwest bumps passengers from flights in reverse order of check-in, meaning the last one to check in is the first one shown the door; ticket price and frequent flier status don't factor in. The best way to avoid the boot is to check in as soon as possible.
"We always recommend customers check in as early as they can for their flights," says Eichinger. "We allow check in 24 hours in advance online. Customers can also check in at the airport (kiosk, ticket counter, skycap) for their flight."
Since she didn't have a seat on the flight, Chan received a security document—not a boarding pass—that allowed her to clear security and head to the gate, where there was a chance she could have made flight.
"Some people don't show up to the gate, and some volunteer to take later flights, so everything is handled at the gate," say Eichinger.
Southwest called for volunteers to give up their seats, but not enough people stepped forward to allow Chan on the flight. Southwest gave her a check for $490, per DOT rules. When she protested, Southwest agents referred her to the airline's customer service department. Chan wanted Southwest to pay for her new ticket to Hong Kong. Somehow the Southwest agents in Houston didn't convey that Southwest wasn't responsible for getting her to Hong Kong, leading to a further three-day delay in Chan getting back to work while she waited to reach someone in the office.
The problem was that Chan bought separate tickets for her trip, breaking the journey into two itineraries, first Hong Kong to Los Angeles, and then Los Angeles to Houston. Southwest's only obligation to Chan was to transport her from Los Angeles to Houston and back. Her onward itinerary to Hong Kong was not Southwest's responsibility, regardless of the delay due to Southwest's decision to oversell the flight. Likewise, if Chan's international flight to Los Angeles were late and she had missed the flight to Houston, Cathay Pacific wouldn't have had an obligation to get her to Texas. That's the danger of separate tickets.
"What makes it hard in this customer's case is that she was heading on another trip," says Eichinger. "We are not in control of what our customers are doing once they finish with Southwest."
Plenty of fliers purchase separate tickets, usually in a bid to save money, or perhaps to ticket an itinerary between airlines that don't interline. It's a gamble, though, and it can prove costly. If you miss a flight, it's entirely your problem to rebook or repurchase tickets to reach your destination. By contrast, when you travel on a single itinerary, even with multiple legs on multiple airlines, your trip is protected, meaning the airlines are responsible for getting you to your final destination, not just partway there.
Travel insurance might help passengers caught with separate ticket troubles. Most policies contain travel delay benefits, which cover food, accommodation and transportation costs if you miss a connecting flight due to a carrier-caused delay, including overbooking. The length of the delay and covered reason for it may vary by insurer, and travel delay benefits may be capped at around $150-$200 per day.
"It does not matter how many different airlines the consumer is using," says Allianz Global Assistance representative Daniel Durazo.
Chan ended up paying $707 for a new ticket to Hong Kong so she could get back to work. Southwest followed DOT rules in compensating her, and so Chan had to deal with the extra expense on her own.
How can you avoid trouble?
• Check in early. The earlier you check in, the lower your odds of being bumped. Most carriers will allow you to check in online 24 hours in advance. If you don't have internet access, head out and find a connection somewhere. That's a lot less inconvenient than being bumped from your flight.
• Call the airline and ask if your flight is overbooked. If you can't get a seat assignment ahead of time, that's a clue your flight may be oversold.
• Don't book separate tickets. What looks like a money saver could turn into a financial boondoggle in case of irregular operations.
• If you have no choice but to book separate tickets, build in a significant time buffer. Don't try to squeeze in a two- hour connection for domestic flights, and make sure you're not on the last flight of the day for that leg. If you're connecting to an international flight, a tour or a cruise, fly the day before.
• Consider travel insurance if you book separate tickets.
Do you have a travel consumer issue you'd like Traveler's Aide to pursue? E-mail Linda Burbank at email@example.com. Your question may be used in a future column.