The night before I planned on flying to Hawaii with my family for spring break, we got the greatest invitation of our lives: would we like to fly there by private jet? DUH!
One minor problem: the kind offer was only one-way. My wife, two daughters, and I would still have to fly home on the domestic airline on which I had already spent $2768 on tickets. I won't tell you its name, but by domestic, I mean American.
At $692 apiece, those ducats sure sound expensive, but those were the cheapest we could find; to secure that "low" price, we had to book a redeye return flight. I've learned from experience that struggling to walk sleep-deprived through a cramped airplane aisle on cramping legs schlepping a carry-on, a dozing eight-year-old, and her carry-on is the best way to get the message, "Your vacation's over!"
On the phone, the airline representative told me that I couldn't just blow off the commercial flight to Hawaii and expect to get on the return flight. If I wanted to skip the first part of our trip with them, the airline would charge a $200 change fee.
$800 to change our tickets from "there and back" to "back". How long would it take them to rip up half our tickets? Two minutes, tops? That $800 they would take out of the money I had already given them worked out to $24,000 an hour. Nice work if you can get it. Then, of course, they would resell our four outbound seats at last-minute prices and make more money!
What was in it for us? Between the change fee and the "new" one-way tickets, which cost $475 apiece, we would split the $2768 equally: they would keep the first two digits of $2700, and we would get the last two digits of $68. By not flying us for half of our trip, they would keep more than 97% of the money!
Would that whopping $68 be a refund to my credit card? HA! Just an airline credit. Would that be a $17 credit for the four of us individually? The rep wasn't sure, but I couldn't waste time; I had a private plane to catch.
Without making any changes, I hung up, huddled with my wife, and decided to press ahead with this I-hope-not-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As she called our generous hosts, I called back the airline to seal the deal.
As time passed on hold, my perception changed. My thinking went from, "We're giving up 4 of our 8 flights, and they’re going to give me a measly $68 credit back?" to "What if the prices have gone up and it's going to cost me more money for asking them NOT to fly us to Hawaii?" I had learned the hard way that some airline offers may be off the table minutes later. What if I had blown it by not accepting right away? (Because making family decisions without discussing them with your wife can be harmful to your health.)
Finally, a new airline rep confirmed we could still get the deal. Here’s where things get a little murky; I wanted to lock that in, while exploring other options. Greedy? Perhaps. Since we were exchanging round-trip for one-way tickets, could we use them on an earlier flight so I could avoid ending my vacation with the aforementioned, jet-lagged, break-of-dawn, child-and carry-on-juggling Walk O' Pain?
Sure, said the rep. We could have four $475 seats on an earlier flight.
For a $200 change fee.
Nooooooooo! I argued that I was still in the process of changing our plans, but the rep said I had already rung up $800 in change fees, and that it would cost me another $800 to change plans again.
"Can I speak to your supervisor, please?"
BOOM! Immediately, my family and I were dropped into vacation limbo. If the phone had been disconnected, I wouldn’t know what tickets we had in which direction; all I had to hang on to was my anger, the feeling that I might have blown our private jet trip, and minute after painful minute of non-threatening jazz hold music.
After what seemed like an interminable wait, the same rep returned, and beneficently granted my wish: in return for keeping our money, they would fly us back, and issue us the pocket change credit. I couldn’t even use the credit to pay for our baggage fees on that flight!
Airline traveler complaints jumped 34 percent last year, to the highest level since 2000. Yet The Forbid Airlines from Imposing Ridiculous (FAIR) Fees Act, which would "prohibit air carriers from imposing fees that are not reasonable and proportional to the costs incurred by the air carriers," recently died in Congress.
"Airlines are overcharging consumers with fees that are grossly disproportionate to the value of the service received and result in a windfall for airlines. ‘Exhibit A’ is change fees, where airlines charge $200 when the true cost of a change is 6 to 7 times lower, if not zero," Business Travel Coalition founder Kevin Mitchell told Skift. "This kind of unconscionable consumer price gouging is a textbook example of unfair methods of competition that underpin competition laws."
Meanwhile, my tan is gone, and I’m still waiting for my $17 credit. Aloha.