Joe not-his-real-name Smith arrived at the Orlando airport exactly one hour before his scheduled flight and stood in line for 10 minutes before reaching the ticket counter. Once there, Joe says the airline employee “told me I missed the deadline, could not get on my flight, and my only option was to fly standby. I ended up flying out 15 hours later, at 10:30 p.m., and was lucky to get on that plane. Can they do that to me?”
In the pre-Internet days, Joe would have called his travel agent, who would have called her airline sales rep, who would have pulled some strings. In the post-Internet days, most travelers suck it up.
An airline ticket is a contract, and the fine print says you must check in no later than one hour ahead of time. Technically, that’s not “I was in line on time,” it’s “I got to the ticket counter on time.” Until you have a boarding pass in your grubby hands (meaning you reached the ticket counter or you printed one off your home computer), you don’t exist.
But ethically, the ticket counter employee can see the line and should be more understanding.
Here’s the rub: The plane was probably overbooked, the ticket agents knew they’d have to bump people, and their modus operandi was to nix travelers and blame the ticket contract. That means other flyers found themselves in the same situation, and each one gave the ticket agent a hard-luck story with the following theme: “I must get to (my destination) right away.”
Ticket agents have heard it all before. Some people complain loudly and demand to see a manager. Some coo and compliment the ticket agent, hoping a softhearted employee will show mercy. Some cry. But overbooked is overbooked, and federal law bans standing in the aisles of an airplane.
If this happens to you, try the aggressive approach, the complimentary approach, or both (start with complimentary and work your way down). Don’t expect success – but every human being reacts differently, and you might find a ticket agent scared enough to give you the seat they were holding for the airline’s president who has not showed.
Try also to call the company that booked your ticket, even if it’s an Internet firm. They might be able to help. If you booked directly through that airline’s website and fly regularly, flash your frequent flyer number.
Remember that the people behind the counter own the airplanes, and they can do whatever they want. They may say you “didn’t follow the rules,” but that’s an excuse to blame some nameless, faceless person behind the scenes (unless it’s FAA rules). The airline created “the rules,” and employees can break “the rules” if they so desire.
And next time, get to the airport early.