When his flight from Boston to Ireland was canceled at the last minute on Aug. 13, Jimmy Ashe faced the painful possibility of missing his niece’s wedding. Five months earlier, Ashe had booked relatively cheap seats for himself, his wife, Amy, and their 2-year-old daughter for a visit that would include a reunion with cousins from both sides of the Atlantic.
The Ashes planned to fly to Dublin and then drive to Clonmany for a wedding in an old stone church where Ashe’s people have been parishioners since the 1800s.
Ashe, 48, an administrator at a Boston-area university, had paid $2,157 for three round-trip tickets in economy class, a pretty significant bite out of the family budget.
But all those plans got tossed out the window when the airline, Aer Lingus, announced to the big crowd waiting to board at Logan Airport that it had canceled the late-night flight due to “technical issues with the aircraft.”
Jimmy and Amy Ashe spent the next 18 hours in a near-sleepless mad scramble, trying to get on a flight that would get them to the church on time. In the end, Jimmy Ashe was there when the radiant bride came down the aisle — but at a very steep price.
It cost Ashe $16,874, nearly eight times the cost of the original tickets, on the same airline, one day after the canceled flight.
“I wasn’t going to miss the wedding,” Ashe said when we met in his Dorchester home. “She’s my niece and my godchild.”
Charging the Ashes almost $17,000 seems wrong to me, not least because it was the airline’s failure that thrust the Ashes into such desperate straits.
The couple said they blame poor customer service in the first, crucial hours after the cancellation for making it almost impossible to rebook their flight until much later in the day, when fares rose to stratospheric levels.
By that time, the only seats left were in business class.
Earlier in the day, Aer Lingus had made an attempt to fly the Ashes to Dublin at no additional charge, but it would have entailed connecting flights from JFK International in New York, Heathrow in London, or Madrid. The Ashes, traveling with a toddler, feared getting waylaid and stranded.
Some travelers would have taken their chances and run through one of the world’s busiest airports for a connecting flight. But I don’t fault the Ashes for saying no. I do fault Aer Lingus for turning a customer service breakdown into a windfall.
So here’s the story:
After the cancellation, the Ashes called the airline immediately and repeatedly (they showed me their phone logs), but for hours got only a “fast” busy signal. At home, Jimmy logged on to the airline’s website and found their canceled flight, which was supposed to be the first step in rebooking. But a box superimposed over the listing of the canceled flight incorrectly stated “Flight has flown,” and there was no way to click around it, Ashe said. (He showed me a screen shot of it.)
Finally, at 5:30 a.m., an Aer Lingus representative answered the phone. Jimmy Ashe said he knew there were just two flights departing from Logan that day, at 6 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., and that getting on one of them was his only shot at making the wedding.
But Ashe said the Aer Lingus representative told him there was nothing available on either flight, even when he asked about upgrading to business class or canceling and buying a new ticket. The answer, he said, was a firm no.
Ashe then canceled his tickets for a refund, which I think was premature. When a flight is canceled, airlines must put bumped passengers on the next flight with available seats. It’s better to keep your tickets because seats on sold-out flights sometimes become available at the last moment, and if you still have your ticket, you may be able to board without additional charge, as I wrote last year.
As it turned out, that’s what happened. Ashe found three seats in economy class on the Aer Lingus website for $6,000. But rather than grabbing them, Ashe called Aer Lingus to confirm there hadn’t been some kind of mistake. By the time he got through, the seats were gone.
Ashe probably should have grabbed those seats first, and worried about confirmation later. But by that point, he was exhausted and frazzled.
“It was an emotional roller coaster, all day long,” Ashe recalled.
“There were lots of tears,” Amy chimed in.
Later that day, with time running out, Ashe found the seats that cost him almost $17,000.
After the trip, the couple contacted the airline several times, in hopes of receiving a partial refund, but said they were rebuffed.
Aer Lingus, in response to my query, apologized to Ashe “for the disruption to his travel and obvious inconvenience caused,” while insisting it had done everything by the book and that “no refund is due.” It did not respond to my detailed, written questions.
What struck me about Aer Lingus’s response is how detached it is. The airline seemed determined to ignore the fact that the family it charged almost $17,000 on Aug. 14 had just one day earlier lost out on $2,100 tickets because of the airline’s last-minute cancellation.
Here’s what it said: “We understand that Mr. Ashe separately made a new reservation and travelled the following day in our Business Class cabin. As this booking has been flown, no refund is due.”
That’s really sticking it to them, I would say.
Fighting back pays off
I’m happy to report that Phyllis Kravetz has received a full refund for a ADT/Defenders security system that never worked properly, following a column last month.
Like many who appear in this column, Kravetz said she was motivated not only for personal redress, but also to be an example to other consumers to fight back when treated badly by businesses.