Series of errors leads to hellish holiday

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BOISE, Idaho -- It should have been the trip of a lifetime. Instead, it was a case study in what can go wrong.

In March 2000, Rod Anderson booked an around-the-world trip for his fiancee, her daughter, a nanny and himself through Roz Madsen, a home-based agent working for Uniglobe V.I.P. Travel in Nampa, Idaho. She in turn booked air tickets through Ticketplanet.com, an on-line travel company based in San Francisco.

A series of scheduling errors turned the trip into a nightmare. "Flights were scheduled on wrong days, arrived hours after connecting flights departed," said Anderson. "I got a memorable trip for all the wrong reasons."

For a year, Anderson sought compensation from Ticketplanet. "Ticketplanet won't talk to me," he said. "They say to deal with my travel agent. When you're dealing with an out-of-state dot-com company, you have few options."

Anderson discovered the first trip error on the way to Chicago for the first international flight. The Lufthansa agent at O'Hare wanted to charge $75 each for eight changes for the group. After three calls to Madsen, who called Lufthansa, the charge was dropped.

In Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Anderson discovered that their Pakistan Airlines flight was rescheduled from Thursday to Sunday, a three-night delay. Anderson said a Pakistan Airlines agent told him the schedule change had been in the computers for months, so Ticketplanet should have had the information when the trip was booked.

According to Kyle Watson, executive vice president of Ticketplanet, "Pakistan Airlines is notorious for changing schedules without notice. We can't be responsible for that."

The carrier would not refund or reassign the tickets. Anderson hired a taxi for six hours while the nanny and child waited in the airport departure lounge. He found a local agent who booked tickets to Bangkok for $1,874 in time to make the Hong Kong connection the group would have missed otherwise.

At each stop from then on, they found the next flights for the women and the girl were canceled. In Sydney, an agent rebooked the remaining flights back to Los Angeles.

Their ongoing flight to San Francisco arrived after their connecting flight to Boise had left. They had to split up, the women waiting standby for a later flight. Madsen said the cancellations resulted from a keystroke error by Ticketplanet's agent while she was on the phone with him. It wiped out the entire record of the three women.

"He proceeded to rebook the itinerary," said Madsen. "The carriers didn't send correct messages because the record wasn't rebooked correctly. They showed the three women canceled on all of the flights [from a point early in the trip]."

Ticketplanet's Watson said errors could have easily been fixed at the beginning if the agent and/or client had followed the directions on the documents to "please check for errors."

According to Anderson, errors didn't result only from the cancellation, there were also errors in the documentation.

Madsen acknowledged one mistake: She did not check the tickets against the itinerary before sending them to Anderson. That one mistake, Ticketplanet's Watson said, was "a big one."

Checking the documents, he said, is a cardinal rule of wholesaling. "We print it big on the envelope: 'Check these documents,' " he said. "Anyone can fix a problem within the week you get the documents. If you aren't told there's a problem until the client is in Tashkent, I don't know how you are supposed to be responsible."

Anderson also admitted his mistake in not checking for errors. "There were four of us, 22 flights for each of us," he said. "I didn't fault the agent all that much because I knew what a big hassle that was. Frankly, I had so much going on I didn't get the final tickets 'til the day we left, and I didn't check them either."

Anderson said two lawyers told him the responsibility lies with the party that made the errors in the first place: Ticketplanet. But Anderson would have to file suit in California. "The juice isn't worth the squeeze," he said.

Mark Pestronk, a travel attorney from Fairfax, Va., agreed that the responsibility lies with Ticketplanet.

According to the few travel cases that make it to courts of appeals, whoever made the errors in the itinerary is responsible even if the customer (in this case either the travel agent or the consumer) didn't check the documents.

Pestronk said cases like this rarely get to court because the cost of litigation is high, and companies say "the customer is always right" and try to make the customer feel better.

"It is not like medical malpractice," he said, "where the damage may be permanent."

Anderson figured he was due about $2,875: $1,874 for new tickets, $150 for bribes, $100 for taxis and $150 per person ($600) "in compensation for our time and inconvenience caused by the multiple ticketing problems."

At one point Madsen said Ticketplanet offered a settlement of $2,700. After a series of miscommunications, Ticketplanet withdrew the offer. Then the representative said the company would accept no more than one-third of the responsibility, or it would see him in court.

On April 23, 2001, Anderson received a check from Ticketplanet for $2,175: $1,200 for refundable tickets not used in Tashkent, "plus an extra amount that we feel is a fair gesture of our responsibility to him," Watson said.

Both Madsen and Watson agree that Anderson saved as much as half the price by going through Ticketplanet instead of booking directly with airlines. But Anderson said he was not looking for the cheapest deals and would have paid more to have a smooth trip.

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