I was heading to Europe with my band to play in some clubs. On our departure day, we got to a suspiciously deserted check-in counter at Dulles International Airport in Virginia and learned that there was no flight to check in for.
Delta, which had already rescheduled our party to depart the next day, said that our flight had been canceled weeks earlier. Hadn’t we heard from the online booking agency that had sold us our tickets?
We had not. And when we called that agency’s customer service hotline, we were told Delta was responsible for scheduling changes. Our airline and our online travel agency blamed each other for the mistake as the few remaining Europe-bound flights took off. Neither would refund the cost of our tickets nor pay for a hotel room.
Defeated (and missing our show in Berlin), we paid for a rental car so that we could go home, sleep, and return to the airport the next night.
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After the tour, I filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation. Figuring that I was more likely to hear back from Santa Claus, I also called my attorney to discuss filing a lawsuit, but his triple-digit hourly fees would have devoured much of any judgment I might win.
There was a cheaper option: small claims court. The DOT even recommends it.
“There are instances where passengers might file a complaint in small claims court if they believe an airline’s actions have caused them financial harm,” wrote Bill Mosley, an agency spokesman, in an email. Though rules adopted under the Obama administration can force airlines to compensate passengers when luggage is lost or delayed or when they are involuntarily bumped from flights, the DOT does not have “the authority to require compensation for other types of passenger inconvenience, such as for delayed or canceled flights, and DOT itself cannot compensate passengers directly,” Mosley wrote.
Luckily, the DOT website has a handy consumer guide for navigating small claims — something consumers will probably have to take on alone should they choose to file a lawsuit. (See dot.gov/airconsumer/fly-rights for general info and dot.gov/airconsumer/air-travelers-tell-it-judge
for small-claims court advice. )
Emboldened, I filed a small claim against the discount ticketing website for $4,924.88. This would cover the cost of my flights, the rental car plus gas and lost revenue from a show we had to cancel in Berlin. Filing was relatively easy: I gathered my receipts, filled out a form, paid $56.50 and got a court date less than a month away.
Settling out of court
I was contemplating wardrobe choices for my court appearance a few days before my date with justice when the online ticketing agency’s in-house counsel called. After some intimidating phone calls — conversations with a real lawyer made me realize that I was no Perry Mason — we settled for $1,000.
I call this a win. Whereas prevailing in small claims court is no guarantee that a defendant will pay promptly, I had a check in my hand within a week. As a traveling musician, I’ve been pushed around by discount ticket retailers with intractable fine print and airlines with unreasonable excess baggage fees for more than a decade. Using the judicial branch, I’d made the company that refused to right its wrong pay attention, and I’d recovered 20 percent of my travel budget.
If more air travelers used small claims instead of looking to our toothless “Passenger Bill of Rights,” wouldn’t airlines and discount ticket retailers have to improve?
Maybe not. Flush from my win, I tried suing Delta, which I considered equally culpable for the Thanksgiving debacle, in January. When the company didn’t respond, I thought I’d easily win a summary judgment. Weeks later, a small claims judge made it clear that I’d thought wrong.
The problem? I hadn’t paid Delta for my tickets — I’d paid the online company I’d already settled with.
Sure, truth, justice and beauty might be too much to ask. But given the choice to plead my case before a judge or an airline customer service representative, I’ll take the judge every time.