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Problems at Airports

<i> Taylor, an authority on the travel industry, lives in Los Angeles</i>

Can an airline’s station manager at an airport upgrade your flight without charge? How about an overnight kit if your baggage doesn’t show up? Or can you get a new ticket to replace a lost or stolen one without paying a second time?

Although the answers are generally yes, policies vary from airline to airline and differ between domestic and international flights.

Many passengers are quite knowledgeable about airline operations but don’t generally understand what authority station managers and their staffs have.

Also, there may be a hierarchy to follow at airports. Depending on the size of the airport, you often can’t see the station manager without speaking to a staff member first.

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Chain of Command

“There is a chain of command, and most problems are handled by our supervisors,” said Herman Zant Wout, terminal services coordinator for Air New Zealand at Los Angeles International Airport. “Station managers generally get involved in special situations and major disruptions like flight delays and cancellations.”

“Our counter agents will try to sort out requests,” said Dieter Stange, station manager for Lufthansa at LAX. “If that doesn’t work, the next step is to ask for the duty manager, who is in charge of a particular flight. Duty managers wear a different uniform and are easily identifiable.”

Station managers also allocate certain responsibilities to other personnel. “Our station managers delegate a good deal of authority to the supervisors overlooking particular flights,” Vince Durocher, district direct of marketing for Delta, said. “If you have a question, ask. If the ticket agent can’t help you, our supervisors will be able to in almost all cases.”

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Suppose discussions with the duty manager/supervisor (there may even be another level of authority, such as a shift superintendent) are unsatisfactory?

“You can then ask to see the station manager, and I have the authority to be the final decision maker on some subjects,” Stange said.

Upgrading Service

Upgrading to a better class of service is one. “If it’s a question of involuntary upgrading, where the passenger is put into a better class of service because, let’s say, economy is all filled up, then we can do that,” Stange said.

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“But if a passenger wants to be upgraded without paying for it, this has to be approved by our headquarters office.”

Passengers also get confused over tickets. “Some passengers may overestimate the discretion of station managers to the point of thinking they can issue free tickets, which isn’t the case,” Dick Green, manager of passenger services for TWA, said.

Another potential misconception comes with baggage. “We can’t settle any baggage claim for over $500,” Stange said. “However, if someone’s baggage is missing or delayed, we can provide them with an overnight kit, even if it’s their hometown.”

On the other hand, TWA will only issue kits to passengers if it’s not their hometown, Green said. “Or we can provide checks for $35 a day for a maximum of three days for passengers to buy necessary items. It all depends on the situation.”

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Delta can provide kits too. “But what we often do when we expect the missing luggage to be on the next flight is to tell passengers we’ll send the luggage to them at their hotel,” Durocher said.

“If the luggage isn’t on the next flight we can authorize the passenger by phone to spend up to $100 for new clothing. Usually we ask passengers to wait 24 hours before giving the $100 authorization, but this is up to the discretion of the station manager.”

Flight Delay

If your flight is delayed or canceled and it’s the airline’s fault, complimentary hotel rooms as well as meals can be offered until the next flight.

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Suppose, though, you want to contact people at your destination? “Lufthansa can telex messages,” Stange said. “And if passengers insist on using the phone themselves, for privacy or otherwise, we can grant this depending on the circumstances.”

For flights within the United States, airlines also may allow a phone call or the sending of a telex. For example, TWA allows either a three-minute phone call or a telex domestically, Green said. “Internationally, we send a telex for the passenger.”

Suppose you want to switch to another airline? “If a passenger wants to change to another airline because of a delay in our flight, Lufthansa can endorse their tickets,” Stange said. “As a general guideline we would do this if our delay is more than three or four hours.”

But endorsement of tickets may not always be possible. “Perhaps 80% of passengers are flying on a discount fare, and many of these tickets may not be endorsable,” the Delta spokesman said.

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Although airlines try to hold onto passengers and the revenue they represent, passengers can insist on transferring to another airline if there are no restrictions on tickets.

When overbooked, carriers generally ask for volunteers to be bumped first, and then bump the last passengers to show up. “It’s on a first come, first served basis at Lufthansa,” Stange said. “Passengers who don’t get on their flight do receive denied boarding compensation.”

Lost or stolen tickets represent another area where station mangers and staff may be of assistance. “We can reissue a lost or stolen ticket if the passenger can provide us with information that we can confirm in our computer,” Stange said.

“Passengers would not have to buy a new ticket, but they have to sign an indemnity form stipulating that if the lost or stolen ticket is used within a certain period, they might then have to pay for this ticket a second time. There’s also a $50 administrative charge.”

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But airlines have different policies. Delta, for example, requires that you buy a new ticket and then refunds the value of your lost or stolen ticket if it isn’t used within 60 days, Durocher said. And there is a $50 administrative charge with the lost/stolen ticket application.

Passengers who show up without passports required for international flights can receive assistance from foreign airlines in some cases.

“If it’s an emergency we can let them fly without a passport, and we advise Frankfurt accordingly,” Stange said. “But this is only when a passenger forgets a passport and can assure us that it will be made available and sent on our next flight.”

A Passport Rule

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Not all foreign airlines do this, however. “The rule of thumb is that if you don’t have a passport, you don’t fly,” Air New Zealand’s Wout said.

Both TWA and Delta indicated that they would not allow passengers to fly without passports and other required documentation.

Although you should advise the airline in advance if you want special meals aboard the flight, you may still manage to accomplish this at the airport.

“If you want a vegetarian meal, there may still be time, though we’re supposed to be advised 36 hours in advance,” Stange said. “If you want other meals, like salt- or sodium-free, which have to be specially prepared, there wouldn’t be enough time for preparation and getting the meal from the flight kitchen to the jet.”

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If you’re celebrating a special occasion such as a honeymoon or 25th wedding anniversary, you might be able to get some extra perks.

“At Lufthansa we can tell the flight crew to give passengers special attention, such as a small bottle of champagne,” Stange said. “Passengers, however, should relay information about such special events when they make their bookings through travel agents or our reservations department.”

As for getting into the VIP lounges of airlines, station managers are generally guided by company policies and capacity limitations.

“Lufthansa’s lounge is limited to first-class passengers and certain other special passengers,” Stange said. “While there are guidelines I have to follow, I have the discretion to invite other passengers if special circumstances are involved.”

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On the degree of discretion to turn down passengers for flights, Stange said: “If a passenger appears to be intoxicated, or to act strangely or in a disturbed fashion, we can refuse to let him board. And a doctor’s note might be required in some instances, such as for passengers who have had recent major surgery.”


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