Any experienced traveler knows it's wise to buy airline tickets as far in advance as possible (the Avenger once had a relative badger him on Thanksgiving Day about his itinerary for next Thanksgiving). But while buying tickets early may save you money, it also opens the door to unexpected screw-ups as when airlines make sudden schedule adjustments that torpedo your plans. One New York family found this out the hard way.
Offending Party: AirTran Airways
What's at Stake: $1,088, including $960 in airfare differences and $128 in unused Disney World tickets
The Complaint: Last December, Rachel Gibson and her family of eight (including small children), were booked on a flight home to Buffalo from Orlando, departing at 6:11 p.m. with a connection in Atlanta. Because their flight wasn't until evening, the family figured they'd be able to spend the day at Disney World.
Unfortunately, the closest the Gibsons got to Mickey Mouse was on a criminally overpriced t-shirt in the Orlando International Airport gift store. That morning, the family had been informed by the hotel's independent airport shuttle service (not the airline, mind you) that they had been rebooked on an earlier flight departing at 3:59 p.m., more than two hours earlier than the Gibsons had planned. The schedule change meant they had to cancel their day at the park and endure a three-plus-hour layover in Atlanta with small children.
The move was a surprise to the Gibsons, who had called Airtran's automated phone line the night before to confirm the departure time of their original flight.
The family called the airline to get an explanation and was told simply that they had been moved to an earlier flight and that even though their original 6:11 p.m. flight was still on the schedule (and not full, according to a check of the website, which showed seats for sale), the family could not be moved back.
The Outcome: Gibson thinks that her family getting booted to an earlier flight was about one thing: cash. She suspects that AirTran moved her to the earlier, less-desirable and cheaper, by $120 per ticket flight in order to free up seats and sell pricier tickets on her original flight.
It's an intriguing theory, but one that AirTran says is complete bunk.
Here's what happened, according to the airline: the Gibsons booked their tickets six months in advance. Their original Orlando-to-Buffalo itinerary included a 31-minute layover in Atlanta. The minimum allowable connection time is 30 minutes.
In August, AirTran moved the departure time of its Orlando-to-Atlanta flight back by five minutes. Doesn't sound like much, but a five-minute delay in arrival in Atlanta meant the Gibsons had just 26 minutes to make their connecting flight too short a window to be permitted. Therefore, Airtran's system automatically moved the family to an earlier flight to allow more than 30 minutes between flights.
Between August and December, AirTran continued to shift its flight times, including those of the original flights the Gibsons had booked, which again allowed for sufficient connection time in Atlanta. Unfortunately, the same automated system that moved the family to the earlier flight failed to move them back to their original flight. A rep for AirTran says "there really is no answer" as to why the system didn't respond.
At the airport in Orlando, the Gibsons asked about getting put back on their original flight, but despite having had seats for sale that day, the airline now says that flight was full, and the Gibsons could not be moved.
Fine, but shouldn't the family at least be refunded for the fare difference in the flight they had originally bought and the one they were forced to take? Remember, the earlier flight cost $120 less per ticket that buys a lot of wings in Buffalo.
Not a chance, says Airtran. "When a flight adjusts times, we do not adjust fares based on that," a rep says.
The Gibsons were offered eight $50 vouchers, but they declined; they don't plan to fly AirTran ever again.
The only lesson here, if there is one: fly nonstop. But then, you knew that already.