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Family says nyet to Finnair's ticket policy

ColumnBusinessRussiaCrimeaTravelAir Transportation IndustryUkraine
This isn't about us changing our minds for personal reasons. This is an international incident.
CheapTickets and Finnair were, essentially, passing the buck.
Maybe it isn't the most PR-savvy policy charging people thousands of dollars to avoid a potential flash point.

Airlines will never win a prize for sensitivity to customers' problems. They typically won't budge on change fees and ticketing costs.

But you'd think that even the most hard-hearted carrier would acknowledge that, all things considered, this isn't the best time for a family trip to Russia.

The situation in Ukraine prompted the U.S. State Department to issue a travel advisory March 14 warning Americans about "the possibility of violence or anti-U.S. actions directed against U.S. citizens or U.S. interests."

Finnair, however, had no problem telling members of a Buena Vista, Calif., family that they'd have to pony up almost $3,000 in extra charges if they wanted to cancel the Moscow leg of an upcoming trip to Europe.

Marina Spor, 45, was born in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, about an hour and half drive from the Crimean peninsula. She immigrated to the United States with her parents at the age of 7.

Spor's husband is of Norwegian stock, so the couple thought it would be fun to let their kids get a taste of their roots with a "heritage" trip to Europe this summer.

They still want to make the trip and still plan to cross the ocean both ways on Finnair. They just figure they'll remain in Norway and do Russia some other time.

"This isn't about us changing our minds for personal reasons," Marina Spor told me. "This is an international incident."

She makes an excellent point: East-West tensions are at a boiling point because of Russia's invasion and annexation of Crimea.

And Spor's not asking Finnair to cancel the family's entire trip. She just wants to eliminate the Moscow-Helsinki leg of her family's planned return to Southern California. They'd like to fly straight home from the Finnish capital.

Spor booked the trip for $5,610.96 in early February, about a month before Russian troops started taking control of Crimea.

The original itinerary entailed flying from Los Angeles to the Norwegian town of Stavanger with a stopover in London. The family then planned to fly on Aeroflot from Oslo to Moscow, stay in the Russian capital a few days and head home on Finnair via Helsinki.

Spor said she lost a few hundred dollars canceling the Aeroflot flight from Oslo to Moscow, which came as no surprise. The Russian airline didn't see the situation in Ukraine as any big deal and thus stood firm on its cancellation fees.

However, Spor was expecting at least a modicum of flexibility on Finnair's part, so the carrier's $2,818.24 in change fees and ticketing costs was a bit of a shock.

"They said that if I didn't start the return flight in Moscow as originally planned, the entire trip had to be canceled," she said. "I couldn't just start with the planned stopover in Helsinki."

Complicating things, Spor had purchased the tickets through the online travel agency CheapTickets, a subsidiary of Orbitz. Finnair told Spor that she'd have to make all changes through CheapTickets.

CheapTickets, for its part, said it was powerless to waive any Finnair change fee or ticketing costs. It said the Spors would have to take that up with the airline.

In other words, both CheapTickets and Finnair were passing the buck.

A close reading of Finnair's customer contract suggests that the buck stops with the airline. It says that "the ticket is and remains at all times the property of the issuing carrier."

The contract makes clear that "changing the place of departure … can result in an increase in price," and no exception is made for geopolitical crises.

But Finnair doesn't hesitate to claim such an exemption when it works in the airline's favor. The contract for its cargo service specifies that the carrier won't be liable for any damage related to "an act of war or an armed conflict."

The State Department's travel advisory says the region surrounding Ukraine has "the potential for escalation of tensions, military clashes (either accidental or intentional) or other violence, and the potential for threats to safety and security."

All of Russia, it says, faces "the potential for increased public demonstrations and anti-American actions."

Spor and her husband arguably would be guilty of profound recklessness if they proceeded with their plans to take their kids to the area.

I contacted Finnair but didn't get very far. The airline emailed me a statement saying that "Finnair is monitoring the situation in Crimea, and, at the moment, Finnair operates according to its normal flight schedule to Moscow and Russia."

"As of now, we do not have any special policy on cancellations or refunds if traveling to Russia," it said. "Passengers need to contact their travel agency directly where cancellations or refunds are done according normal ticket rules and conditions."

I also reached out to CheapTickets. It was apparently more successful in persuading Finnair that maybe it wasn't the most PR-savvy policy charging people thousands of dollars to avoid a potential flash point.

Marita Hudson Thomas, an Orbitz spokeswoman, said that "the CheapTickets customer care team has worked with our airline partner, and Finnair has made an exception and allowed CheapTickets to cancel the Moscow segment of the customer's itinerary without penalty."

I passed along the good news to Spor, who was pleased but acknowledged that the only reason the fees were waived was because Finnair didn't want to look completely heartless in the press.

"I know that they don't want to lose money," she said. "But we weren't asking for any money back. We just wanted to make one change. They didn't even try to work with us."

I asked whether Spor will be flying with Finnair the next time she and her husband try to take the family to Russia.

"No," she said without hesitation. "Never again."

And that's a lesson in customer service all companies should take note of.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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