how do I fight an airline service charge?
April 4, 2011 2:37 PM   Subscribe

How do I fight this absurd airline service charge?

I bought plane tickets to from Toronto, Canada to Cairo, Egypt for my wife and I back in December, before the demonstrations started. The flight isn't until April 21. We were planning on visiting friends who are teaching there for a year.

The flight is on Turkish airlines, and it has a layover in Istanbul both going there and coming back. Because of the government travel advisory which asks Canadians to avoid unnecessary travel to Egypt, I called our travel agent last week to cancel the Istanbul-Cairo portion of our ticket. Turkish airlines wants to charge us $500 for the change, plus the amount that the fare has increased since we bought the ticket. If we don't show up to get on the Istanbul-Cairo flight, the airline will cancel our flight home.

We feel this is unfair and unreasonable. We aren't asking to change flights, we just don't want to use a portion of the ticket we paid for. And we are making the change out of respect for a government issued travel advisory that was established long after we bought our tickets.

Secondly, I have a lot of time on my hands these days, and I'm considering suing in small claims court. I can't think of another instance where you have to pay for the privilege to use less of something you've already paid for. Can anyone offer advice on how I might make a successful argument in small claims?
posted by thenormshow to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This really depends on the fare basis code of the tickets you bought. The airline can charge you a reissue fee, and if it is a route specific fare, the difference in cost between your old ticket and the new ticket. I'm pretty sure that Turkish Airlines charges a 200 dollar reissue fee, but I'd have to see the fare basis code so could look it up in Sabre and tell you exactly. If you want to mefi-mail me the eticket details I can tell you what the rules for the fare are.
posted by Bernt Pancreas at 2:48 PM on April 4, 2011

Your travel agent is probably best placed to make any arguments on your behalf, and far more aware of the applicable laws; what did they say when you complained about the cost? Probably "that's why we offered you Travel Plan Insurance"

You agreed to all those silly rules when you bought the tickets though, so what's your claim going to be in court? "I was too busy to read the terms, your honor, please don't hold me to them, and please create a remedy above and beyond the one in that contract I couldn't be bothered to read, such that I make out just fine and the other party is screwed, through no fault of their own." Turkish Airlines is no more the cause of the situation in Egypt than you are, and deserves to take on no more liability than they agreed to up front.

Contracts don't have to follow your ideals of fairness, they generally just need to show that both sides offered something of value and put forth terms to codify that agreement on paper. Unwillingness by one party to read what they've agreed to is generally not considered a valid reason to override the contract.
posted by nomisxid at 2:53 PM on April 4, 2011

I can't think of another instance where you have to pay for the privilege to use less of something you've already paid for.

This is true, but it's also standard practice among airlines to cancel all subsequent legs because you miss a segment. As Bernt Pancreas says, the fare basis is what matters here, but given that your purchase meant consenting to the general conditions of carriage, I'm not sure how much luck you'll have in court. (That, alas, is why travel insurance exists.)

But if you want to pursue it, this site offers some (admittedly US-focused) guidance.
posted by holgate at 2:56 PM on April 4, 2011

If all else fails, you can try disputing the charge with your credit card company. They may well not bite, but if you cite the travel advisory, it's worth a shot. I would first try to ascertain whether the billing was done by the airline or the travel agent, as sticking your travel agent with the difference isn't fair to them at all.

nomisxid: yes a contract is a contract, but what the OP wants to do here is fly a shorter distance for the fare they already paid. He bought a roundtrip ticket for YYZ-IST-CAI. Now he just wants to fly YYZ-IST and back. To do that, Turkish Airlines wants $500 plus the difference in fare. That's pretty ridiculous. No one is asking them for a refund, just to be able to use the ticket they already paid for without taking the second leg of the flight. It might be legally defensible, but it's pure bullshit to any rational person, and I don't think the OP deserves to be scolded for that.
posted by zachlipton at 3:01 PM on April 4, 2011

This is how airplane tickets work, and as far as I know, it always has been.

You agreed to these terms when you bought the ticket, and you have no basis to sue.

Sorry about your inconvenience.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:01 PM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you are not trying to drop the second leg of your trip but change your itinerary completely? Shorter distance does not necessarily imply a lower fare if you want to fly a less popular route with lower capacity.
posted by Brennus at 3:05 PM on April 4, 2011

An attitude of I AM GOING TO SUE is unlikely to get you what you want. Being calm, well reasoned and polite is more likely to get you the outcome you seek because you can't extract it from them, they have to grant it to you.

I think you should write a real, old fashioned, extremely polite letter to the head of customer service asking them to waive the charges under the circumstances. You know, "in light of the ongoing situation in Egypt and the canadian government's travel advisory..." More flies with honey and all that.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:13 PM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have no good advice to offer, but just want to say I totally understand how frustrating this situation is: You're not asking for any money back, and since you're taking the exact same Toronto-Istanbul flights that you would have anyway, the airline doesn't really have to do anything that would cost them money to accomodate your change.

In fact, they get 2 empty seats on the Istanbul-Cairo leg (that they could presumably sell again and make double the profit on, since you've already paid for them). Even if they don't manage to sell those seats, they're theoretically saving on fuel b/c the plane is that much lighter.

Is there anything in the terms and conditions that states what would happen if you both suddenly become violently ill after checking in at Istanbul, and thus cannot board the flight to Cairo? Of course this leaves open the question of what will happen when you don't board / check-in to the Cairo-Istanbul leg.

Also, I want to 2nd DarlingBri's suggestion about appealing to their generosity. At least at first stab. ;)
posted by miss_kitty_fantastico at 3:19 PM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, it's totally ridiculous, but this is a pretty standard practice so I don't think you'd have too much luck suing them. Your best tactic is probably what DarlingBri said-- to appeal to them to waive the fee based on the situation in Egypt.
posted by geegollygosh at 3:23 PM on April 4, 2011

Of course this leaves open the question of what will happen when you don't board / check-in to the Cairo-Istanbul leg.

If you don't fly the Istanbul-Cairo leg and they operate like most airlines in the world, they will cancel the remaining portion of your ticket, meaning you can't get home. Simply not showing up without prior arrangement to change your ticket is not a good approach. Certainly, they can drop a portion of the route from your itinerary without any difficulty (I've done it a bunch of times with no charge when flights have been delayed/cancelled), they just don't want to.
posted by zachlipton at 4:23 PM on April 4, 2011

Yes. Ridiculous AND standard practice and if you successfully sue in small claims court, you will be a god.

People have a lot of confused ideas about contracts. Just because something's written in one doesn't mean it will hold up, especially in a place that has good consumer protection regulation.

Cynically I think that if there were a judicial way to fight this ridiculousness it would have been done already. But you know, maybe not, and sometimes the same case that lost last year will win next year.

If you have the time and inclination, go get some help from a university legal clinic and make your case. Who knows what could happen! At least it would be interesting.
posted by Salamandrous at 4:28 PM on April 4, 2011

Crazy idea here, but you could just go on the flight to Cairo as originally planned. Tourists are still visiting the country. If your friends said not to come, that would be a little different, in my opinion.
posted by cabingirl at 8:45 PM on April 4, 2011

Did you buy the tickets on a credit card with any form of travel insurance (most gold cards have something like this)? Many of the travel specific cards include trip cancellation insurance that would cover this.
posted by saradarlin at 12:03 AM on April 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Ticket pricing works for specific routes and intineraries, times of day and week. The people flying to Istanbul are not the same people those flying to Cairo, even if the latter get routed through Istanbul. The people flying on a Monday are not the same as on a Wednesday afternoon. And there are different alternatives and different competing airlines for each option. That's what's driving the price and that's what you agreed to in the terms and conditions. If you want your money back travel insurance is the way to go. Or, as others have said, just go and visit your friends. Unless they are advising you to stay away.
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:37 AM on April 5, 2011

What is the deal if you completely cancel the trip? With some airlines, you can get a credit for the ticket, minus a service charge, to use on a later trip. If this applies, it might be more economical to go that route. (And probably make other plans for the 21st and following.)

Anyway, ask your travel agent to apply some creative thinking and persuasion here. They're not going to be able to get you the trip to Istanbul with no additional charges, but they might be able to call in some favors so you lose less money.
posted by BibiRose at 7:37 AM on April 5, 2011

No one ever complains when they can buy tickets A-B-C for cheaper than they can buy tickets A-B. But when their plans change, then they complain it's unfair and ridiculous that they can't go back to A-B without paying a charge. But if anyone could do that, the airline would never be able to make the A-B-C trip so cheap, because everyone who wanted to fly A-B would pull the same thing. That's why airlines prohibit you from doing this.

The same applies to people who choose to save thousands of dollars by buying nonrefundable tickets instead of the available tickets that are fully changeable and fully refundable without fees. Or to save money by not purchasing travel insurance.

Anyway, I think the terms are totally fair, and you should lose if you sue them over this. But who knows, the judge might see it your way. Or maybe Turkish will screw up in defending the case, by not showing up or something.

The best way to reduce extra charges would be to just change the trip entirely, because right now you are looking at changing to a new trip that is less than three weeks away, and that can be costly.
posted by grouse at 9:25 AM on April 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

It's standard practice on airline ticketing. It's unethical, but still legal.

It's like a store selling an apple for $2 and an apple + an orange for $1. But if you buy that and decide to throw away the orange, then they take away your apple too. Sound illegal to me, but that's how it works. Until government steps in and rectify the situation, there nothing much we can do.
posted by WizKid at 12:50 PM on April 5, 2011

You're comparing apples and oranges.
posted by grouse at 1:46 PM on April 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Well, if we're really going to use this analogy, a more accurate description would be that this is like a store selling an apple for $2 and an apple + an orange for $1, but then the government tells you that the orange is dangerous and you shouldn't eat oranges unless you're really super hungry. Obviously you decide to throw away the orange, but then the store takes away your perfectly fine apple too unless you pay an extra $4 fee.
posted by zachlipton at 2:02 PM on April 5, 2011

@zachlipton : Yeap, that's more of a accurate analogy considering the OP's situation.
I was talking more generally :-)
posted by WizKid at 2:57 PM on April 5, 2011

Thanks all for the advice. $817 later, I now have a ticket for YYZ=>IST and back. The travel agents said they could put a note on the ticket in the system, and Turkish Airlines might not cancel the return flight, bit Ms. Show and I decided not to roll the dice. Seems like my travel agent went to bat for me with the airline, but the airline didn't budge.

There's really no way around this, it seems. A changeable ticket would have been hundreds more, and cancellation insurance would have just refunded the ticket. Half the fee I paid was the difference in fare. This is the first time I've ever had to change a ticket, so it makes more sense to self insure, rather than buy insurance or a changeable ticket every time.

The real frustration in this is that whether it's airlines, cell phone companies, cable companies or credit cards, it's not about a service sold for a transparent price, it's about what's hidden in the contract. This fee structure is the same for all airlines, so it's not a matter of dealing with a more reasonable company. I don't have the time to sail across the Atlantic, so I have to sign the contract with these unfair terms.
posted by thenormshow at 4:50 PM on April 5, 2011

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