Travel: She's got a ticket to ride, but they don't care

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The Independent Online
There is surely no worse travel nightmare than this, writes Simon Calder. It is 4.30am, and you are 6,000 miles from home at a check- in desk at the world's highest international airport. You have just learnt that your mother has died suddenly.

Thanks to the heroic efforts of your family, assisted by the BBC World Service, you have been tracked down while travelling in South America. Your father has booked and paid for the journey back to Britain to enable you to attend the funeral. But now the airline representative is saying that there is no record of any booking.

That was the experience suffered by Nicola Medlik at the hands of American Airlines at La Paz airport. Even though she had both the reservation reference and details of her father's credit card, airline staff initially denied the existence of a booking on the flight to Miami. They then agreed that a seat had been reserved, but insisted that the ticket had not been paid for.

Nicola's father, the distinguished tourism academic Professor S Medlik, had booked the trip through British Airways and paid for it with his Access card. "I thought it was a foolproof way of making sure my daughter could get home," he says.

When, however, American Airlines said there was no ticket waiting, Nicola suggested that the staff call either the credit card company, or the US office of the airline, to confirm her story. They declined to do so (because, says the airline, telcommunication links were faulty) and said she would have to buy a ticket.

Her offer to pay by cheque, drawn in dollars on a US bank, was rejected. Eventually she managed to find an automatic teller machine that accepted her card. It paid out just enough cash for her to buy the ticket.

At Miami, British Airways had her onward ticket to London waiting, and she arrived in time for her mother's funeral. Her father was understandably concerned and called BA to try to clear the matter up. In his words: "They were utterly indifferent to my view that I expected them at least to look into the matter, since I had made the reservations with, and paid for them to, BA. I was passed on to four different people and explained to each of them what had happened. They insisted that this was a matter between me and American Airlines and nothing to do with BA; they even refused to make a note of my name and telephone number so that we might discuss the matter later."

Professor Medlik was also horrified by the attitude of American Airlines: "Despite knowing the circumstances and my daughter's distress, the AA manager and staff at La Paz airport appeared quite happy to let her miss her mother's funeral."

Some weeks after the bereavement, the Medlik family finally received apologies from the two airlines. American Airlines pointed its corporate finger firmly at BA, "... since your letter indicates that payment was made to them. We have no record of receiving details of this from British Airways".

BA's director of marketing, Martin George, accepted responsibility in a letter to Professor Medlik: "Clearly we are at fault for not setting up the pre-paid ticket advice correctly. Our reservations manager has taken up this matter to ensure greater care is taken in future. I apologise for the considerable inconvenience and upset you and your daughter experienced." Mr George also refers to the attitude of BA staff: "I am very disappointed with the lack of help given by our people. Our customers are top priority at British Airways and we should have made every effort to solve this problem. Please accept my apologies. We will do better for you in future."

Professor Medlik regards BA's response as "a handsome apology", but had to wait more than a month before the pounds 500 double payment was refunded. He is less impressed with American Airlines: "They were not very forthcoming about the behaviour of their staff, which was at best indifferent and at worst callous. However, customer care seems to leave something to be desired in both airlines."

A survey carried out this week by `The Independent' suggests the experience of the Medlik family to be an exception. We contacted 23 of the leading airlines operating from the UK. All of those who responded promise extra care for passengers needing to travel urgently.

All the airlines which responded make humanitarian provisions for passengers who have suffered bereavement. Such a privilege applies to close family members, but most airlines will extend this to include a common-law partner - including one of the same sex - or anyone else who is especially close.

The responses from Cathay Pacific and British Midland are typical: "Staff are trained to be flexible to meet the needs of passengers on an individual basis"; "All reservations supervisors and team leaders have the authority to look at distressing situations and to make the appropriate flight arrangements".

Some airlines, however, lay down more specific guidelines. If a passenger needs to buy a ticket, many will waive early-booking or minimum-stay requirements for cheaper tickets. Aer Lingus, for example, has an official "compassionate fare" set below full economy levels. United Airlines offers the lowest available fare and waives conditions. Iberia and KLM, in contrast, sell the appropriate publicly available fare.

If you have to travel at a busy time, the flight may be fully-booked. Most airlines will "priority waitlist" you, which means that as soon as a seat becomes available, you get it. British Airways goes further: "If a flight was full, our customer service staff in the UK and overseas would endeavour to find a seat in any cabin if necessary to try and ensure their departure. We could also arrange transfer to another carrier free of charge in some circumstances." Large airlines with frequent departures on extensive networks are able to explore alternative routings to help a passenger reach a destination in the minimum time.

The trickiest question is about how passengers demonstrate that this is genuinely an emergency. Depressingly, there is evidence of people falsely claiming a bereavement so as to qualify for a cheap ticket or find a space on a flight. "We sometimes get calls for such assistance but find that some callers never come back when they are asked for proof. Such requests are always for full, long-haul flights," says Air France. El Al says, "We rely on the integrity of passengers. Only in extreme cases would we ask for proof." Most carriers will ask for a death certificate or doctor's note, but discretion is exercised - if a passenger needs to get a flight in the next couple of hours, this may be waived.

Two airlines, American and Air Canada, operate discounts retrospectively. The passenger buys a full economy fare, then upon supplying proof of the emergency a refund is made. American says, "This is the most effective way of helping people who are genuinely distressed." On Air Canada this arrangement is an option; you can, instead, supply evidence at the time and buy a discounted ticket immediately.

One final piece of the jigsaw: how to contact a relative who is in a distant corner of the world. The BBC World Service (0171-240 3456) broadcasts a very limited number of appeals on its English-language service. Each case is decided on its merits, and assessed accoording to the likelihood that contact will be made - e.g. the knowledge that the person has a short- wave radio.

The airlines that participated in the survey were Aer Lingus, Air Canada, Air France, Air India, Air New Zealand, Alitalia, American Airlines, British Airways, British Midland, Cathay Pacific, El Al, Iberia, Japan Airlines, KLM, Lufthansa, Qantas, Thai International, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. The airlines that declined to respond within the three working days in which we invited replies were: Aeroflot, Continental Airlines, Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines.