Fixing a flight mixup

What would you do if you discovered that you were booked on a nonexistent flight? This was the unbelievable situation that my wife and I recently encountered.

We believe in firming up travel arrangements as early as possible to avoid the disappointment of unavailable space. In April ’03 we booked, through Adventure Center (800/227-8747), a September tour of Romania, Explore Worldwide’s “Village Folklore and Danube Delta,” land only.

An intensive search on the Internet finally yielded a great price on flights. We would fly from Atlanta to New York’s JFK on Delta, connecting to Bucharest on the Romanian airline Tarom. The price for this round-trip itinerary was $698 through, and our tickets promptly arrived in the mail.

We only discovered that there was a problem when I called Tarom to get seat assignments as the departure date approached. The Tarom agent insisted I must have been mistaken about having a return ticket for a Sunday as there were no Sunday flights after the peak summer travel period. Besides, his records clearly indicated that we were coming back on Monday.

Only an offer to fax a copy of my tickets turned skepticism into reluctant credibility. Nevertheless, Tarom could/would offer no alternative to getting us home on our Sunday ticket date.

Naturally, blame was laid at the feet of When I called them, they claimed no knowledge of the change, and they could do nothing to get us home on Sunday other than refund our existing tickets and make a new reservation on another airline at several hundred dollars in additional cost. No thanks.

I called Tarom again and told them that it was their ticket that was faulty and I wanted them to make it right. They still refused to correct the error but did finally volunteer a strategy that would “likely” get us home on Sunday.

We were told, “Show up at the Bucharest airport early Sunday morning and go to the Tarom help desk. Tell them that your flights were involuntarily changed. They can probably get you on the Tarom flight to Vienna and then from Vienna to New York for your Delta flight to Atlanta. Be sure to emphasize the involuntary change made to your itinerary.”

Although this strategy was a bit unsettling, we decided to give it a try. However, I did have the presence of mind to make a list of all the flight options for getting from Bucharest to Atlanta, both those that connected in JFK and better options that connected in European cities.

On Sunday we were at the Tarom desk before 7 a.m. I showed them my tickets and said we wanted to go home “today.” The two women there looked it up in the computer and said, “No, you are all set to go home tomorrow.” I then played the “involuntary change” card, calmly saying that we had never agreed to this change and that we absolutely needed to get home now.

At first I was told, “Well, there is a KLM flight boarding over there. You can go see if you can get on that flight.”

“No,” I said, “it is your responsibility to make alternative arrangements, not mine,” and then I told them that the Tarom office in the U.S. suggested we be routed via Vienna. They finally indicated that they would check availability.

At that point I showed them my listing of flights to Atlanta and pointed to the best option, a Tarom flight to Paris connecting to an Air France/Delta flight nonstop to Atlanta. The ladies found that seats were available and reissued our tickets.

After a good bit of aggravation, we got home with the best possible flights and extra Delta SkyMiles from Paris to Atlanta rather than to New York.

There are four lessons in this story:

1. If you get in a situation where your flight itinerary is unreasonably changed, remember to object on the basis of an “involuntary” change.

2. Allow yourself loads of time at the airport, because there is a lot more paperwork to this kind of change than just issuing a ticket.

3. Do not rely on the airline to know or check all of the available alternatives. Put the balance of power in your favor by having as much or more flight information than they do.

4. Remember that calm and polite persistence can break through bureaucratic inertia better than displays of temper.

Gainesville, GA