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How to navigate airline customer service

Last month there was a story about a grieving couple who, after a series of airline-related issues with Delta, ended up missing their brother's funeral. As someone who specializes in urgent airline assistance, it was painful for me to read, because it didn't need to end this way. Several solutions could have been found to help them get to their destination in time for the funeral. So this seems like a good opportunity to offer some helpful tips on what to do if you ever find yourself in a situation where you really need to get somewhere but are stuck on the ground.


Don't get hung up on trying to find bereavement fares
When there's a tragedy, people often ask for bereavement fares to help reduce the cost of flying. But bereavement fares are generally offered by the traditional legacy airlines only (Southwest and other low-cost carriers don't have them), and the truth is that they aren't always a bargain. Sure, they're discounted off the full fare, but you can often find cheaper discounted fares through the usual channels. Even in the case of United — an airline that gives a 5 percent discount off fares instead of filing specific bereavement fares — you might not want to bother. Why? Because the documentation required can be a real hassle.

Double-check your itinerary
This particular couple booked their flights over the phone and received a confirmation number. When they got to the airport, they found out that they had been booked on an earlier flight (which had already departed) and they were no longer able to get seats on the flight they originally wanted. Who was at fault? We have no idea. But it doesn't matter who messed up, because the way to avoid this problem is always the same: double-check that everything is correct when you book. Regardless of how you book, give an email address so you can receive a confirmation in writing. If you forget, you can still go online and look up your booking with the confirmation number you received on the phone, or you can even call back to verify if you have to. I know this sounds tough when you're stressed about the loss of a family member, but it's always important to double-check.

Get to the airport early
In this particular case, it wouldn't have made a difference since the earlier flight was a good six hours beforehand — but the more time you give yourself, the better chance you'll be able to recover from any problems you might run into. In this example, the couple arrived at the airport 2.5 hours early, and that was a good thing. It gave them some time to try to find alternatives once it was established that the flight they wanted was completely full and they wouldn't be able to get on.

Don't waste time
If you find out that your reservation is gone and the airline says it can't get you on the flight you needed, start thinking about the clock. Sure, you can sit there and ask for the supervisor, but if the airplane is full, it's full — the ticket agent can't physically add more seats. While you're waiting, make sure that you are using your time wisely. If you have a smartphone, start looking for other options on sites like Hipmunk.com or other metasearch sites and online travel agents. Or to really maximize your time, call a friend who is in front of a computer to aid your search. If you have no friends, well, you can always call someone at Cranky Concierge, which deals with this kind of thing all the time. While you're waiting for a supervisor, you can even get the agent with your airline involved in trying to help. The point is that once the clock is ticking, you're going to want to take advantage of every second. So don't dwell on the problem, the mistake, or the mix-up — move right to the part where you're finding a solution.

Get creative
According to Delta, this flight was full in all classes of service and there was already a list of standby passengers. So the most obvious alternatives weren't going to work.That's when it's time to start getting creative. Go to a site like Flightstats.com, where you can see all flights leaving from your airport. Once you start thinking about what flights and airlines might be able to get you where you need to go, you can start to string together ideas. For example, this couple needed to go to Detroit, but maybe the United red-eye to Cleveland had room. It's less than three hours from there to drive to Detroit, so that could have possibly worked. Remember: If you really need to be somewhere, you're usually willing to consider a lot more options than under normal circumstances.

Be nice
I'm not suggesting that this couple wasn't nice, because I wasn't there to know one way or the other. But it's still always a good idea to remind people to be nice. Chances are that the person who you're dealing with isn't the person who made the mistake. That means they are an ally — they are someone who could help you get you to your destination, but if you're yelling and screaming, then they aren't likely to be as motivated to go above and beyond. I would guess this couple was nice because according to Delta, the agents tried to find alternatives on other airlines and then gave them a full refund along with a $300 voucher when they couldn't get them on a Delta flight. That didn't get the couple to their destination, but it's still more than Delta had to do.

In the end, this whole situation was terrible. This woman missed her only brother's funeral. I would hate to seesomething like this happen to others, so try to remember these steps: stay calm, get help (from the Internet, from an airline agent, from a problem solver like Cranky Concierge or your travel agent), be nice and be creative.

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