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Jay Young

Caveat Traveler

Harford Business Ledger: May 2006

This month's edition of the Harford Business Ledger is devoted to travel and tourism. I must admit that this is a troublesome topic from the legal perspective. As a general rule, lawyers protect and enforce people's rights. When someone is wronged, they turn to the legal profession to seek redress. This issue of redress is particularly frustrating in the travel industry. We all have stories of lost airplane reservations, lost luggage, substandard hotel accommodations and other travel issues which range in magnitude from mildly annoying to vacation ruining. Generally, there are very few legal remedies that can be pursued economically and practically to redress travel wrongs. The industry is just too big to take on. It is hard to determine the appraised value of two days' lost vacation time. And what is it worth to not have your luggage for your trip or to experience a dirty or noisy hotel room? These problems are magnified because vacation time is so precious.

The other frustration, particularly with respect to the airline industry, is the lack of consistency and reliability. As is my luck, my annual winter vacation in search of warmer climates was scheduled with a departure on Sunday, February 19th -- which coincided with the forecast for the largest snowfall of the winter season. The forecasters predicted 16" to 24" of snow within time periods that would have our departure falling smack dab in the middle.

Now, in the overall scheme of life, this is certainly not a life-threatening emergency, but when you count the days after the Christmas holiday until your long awaited trip on February 19th, it's not hard to slip into freak mode. I made five telephone calls to the airline in an effort to arrange an earlier departure. On one call I was told one leg of the journey was completely booked for the entire week and that there was absolutely nothing that could be done. A second call suggested that we could move the first leg of our journey from Baltimore to San Juan a day early, spend the night in San Juan and take the next leg as scheduled the next day. That sounded good. Leave a day early and avoid the snow. One extra night in a hotel in San Juan might be fun.

So I told the reservation agent that sounded good -- how much would it be? When she told me $800.00 per ticket -- I decided to see if there might be another alternative. Two other calls yielded completely different options sending us through Wisconsin and Albuquerque. Finally, on the fifth call, after no more than thirty seconds of keyboard tapping in the background, the reservation clerk confirmed our exact same flights one day earlier at no charge. While that was great news, I could not help but be suspicious. Why hadn't anyone discovered this alternative earlier? It was too good to be true. The clerk assured me that I could pull up my itinerary on the Internet and print my E-tickets while she held on the line. I did so and it all worked beautifully. Although I was delighted, to this day I puzzle about why number five could get the job done so quickly and easily while four others gave complete disparate scenarios.

Although there is very little legal redress that can practically be achieved in dealing with the travel industry, there are various consumer protection agencies to assist with travel nightmares. The Aviation Consumer Protection Division (ACPD) operates a complaint handling system for consumers who experience air travel service problems. To find it, simply google "travel problems" and the first listing is the ACPD. While there is no immediate gratification derived from describing your problem here (such as an electric shock delivered to the person who stole your luggage), some adverse consequences to wrongdoers can result, and some things will happen to benefit the travel experience of others.

All ACPD complaints are entered into the Department of Transportation's computerized aviation industry monitoring systems, and are charged to the company in question in a monthly Air Travel Consumer Report. This report is distributed to the industry and made available to the news media and the general public, so that consumers and air travel companies can compare the complaint records of individual airlines and tour operators. These complaints are reviewed to determine the extent to which carriers are in compliance with federal aviation consumer protection regulations. This system also serves as a basis for rule making, legislation and research. There is more swift and decisive action if your grievance rises to the level of discrimination or denial of accessibility, and the web site guides you through various forms which can be completed to file complaints about those issues.

The bottom line is that there is not a whole lot of law involved in the travel and tourism industry from the consumer's standpoint. And maybe it should be that way. In my case, all of my problems were quickly resolved with a healthy dose of rum. I would advise you to do the same.

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