My husband and I recently flew from Berlin to Newark on Continental Airlines. After about 45 minutes in the air, the flight attendants offered beverage service. I politely requested coffee.
There was no turbulence. When the flight attendant reached over my husband to serve me in the window seat, she spilled the entire contents of a cup of scalding hot coffee directly into my lap. I jumped out of my seat and took off for the restroom. I was scalded, traumatized and very embarrassed. Everyone up and down the aisle was staring.
My pants were soaked through to my underwear. The seat cushion was soaked and my husband's shirt and pants were wet as well. Both seat cushions had to be replaced. The flight attendant was apologetic and, upon my return from the restroom, realized that I was hurt and in tears. She offered me ice. I declined. Another attendant came over a while later and offered me aspirin.
The attendant informed us that we would be required to complete an incident report, which we did. We were also given a voucher to have our clothes cleaned.
In consideration of the pain, embarrassment and inconvenience, I asked Continental to reimburse my frequent-flier account 100,000 miles, which is what I paid for my ticket. Continental has refused. Can you help?
— Sheryl Siegel, Wellington, Fla.
A Continental was correct to apologize and offer you the cleaning certificates. But how much more are you entitled to? What's your pain and suffering worth?
Accidents involving hot beverages remind me of the 1994 McDonald's coffee case, in which a customer of the fast-food restaurant was awarded nearly $3 million by a jury after she spilled hot coffee on herself. Her attorneys argued the coffee was served too hot.
Now, 100,000 miles is a lot less than the jury award (later reduced by the judge) in the McDonald's case. But is it reasonable? The way I see it, if there's an incident report, and you're unhappy with the resolution that a company offers you in its immediate aftermath, you should follow up with a polite letter or email asking it to review your grievance.
Not only did you do that, but you also did Continental a favor by telling it how it could resolve the problem to your satisfaction. Why the airline refused is a mystery and one that I asked it to look into.
It turns out that the department that handled your grievance was not authorized to award frequent-flier miles. Your complaint was routed to a division that deals with personal-injury claims, and its main concern was whether you had incurred any additional medical expenses, which you hadn't.
A Continental representative contacted you and offered you $300 as a settlement, which you accepted.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and a co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. You can read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or email him at email@example.com.
TRAVEL TROUBLESHOOTER: Passenger accepts $300 for coffee in lap
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