Airlines making a mint off your booking errors

The British, as a culture, have come a long way since swiping the Elgin Marbles from Greece. They still won't give them back, of course, but the British are nonetheless inscrutably accountable these days.

If their elected leaders so much as replace a broken water heater on the public dime, the papers are all over it. And people care, too.

So it should be no surprise that a British consumer watchdog group has done a survey of how much online booking errors are costing its airline passengers. Add up all those whoops moments -- "Bucharest" instead of "Budapest," wrong travel dates, misspelled passenger names -- and the airlines have raked in an untold fortune from change fees and re-bookings.

The group, the Air Transport Users Council (AUC), is the official clearinghouse for complaints against the airlines, and it reports that it received more than 1,000 complaints in 2008-09. That was 41% higher than the year before.

A few issues are at play, says the Times. One is the fact the airlines are always tweaking their Web sites, so customers are perpetually hazy about how forms are laid out and where the stumbling blocks and opt-outs lie. Being charged twice for the same airfare, whether by errant double-clicks or by poor webmastering, is another problem.

There's also the fact that we now are so used to booking stuff online, all day and every day, that we're simply not paying as close attention as we did when Web purchasing was a novelty. The more we book online, the more mistakes are made.

And if the airlines are making money off those mistakes, naturally it's going to take longer and more pressure to get them to correct them.

The AUC pointed out that airlines are charging $650 to $820 just to change a name on a reservation -- something that can be accomplished in just a few keystrokes.

It's similar over here: $150 is a typical charge, and now that the TSA's Secure Flight program is tightening the leeway in differences between the name on your ticket and the one on your identification, the airlines stand to make even more extra cash as passengers sweep up after mistakes.

In Britain, the gaffes are compounded by the fact that many airlines, particularly the "low-cost" ones such as EasyJet and Ryanair, offer telephone assistance only through expensive, surcharged numbers that can cost $1 per minute to call.

But at least they have influential watchdog groups like the AUC on their side, and with its help, a few British carriers (including Virgin and Bmi) have elected to implement a 24-hour "cooling off" period after bookings are first made. That gives customers time to check, in the cool light of day, what they just bought, and to cancel or change without penalty if necessary.

The AUC also noted that British Airways has a good record of lenience for correcting booking blunders, even though nothing in its Terms and Conditions says it has to be.

So far, with the exception of extremely expensive fully refundable fares, that's not something the American airlines are doing for their customers as a matter of course. Right now, we're mostly at the mercy of whichever phone operator we reach -- and even then, we may be charged a fee to use the phone for the re-booking.

Until things change, if you have a few too many martoonis at 3 a.m. and book a flight to Vegas, well, you're going to Vegas, but it's the airline that will be cashing in.

Will the airlines in the United States give us a similar grace period after bookings so that we can catch and fix errors? Not without pressure.
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