Saturday, September 07, 2013

Frontier charges Delaware's fliers extra for Houston: After route canceled, unusual move taken

It was, they believed, a stroke of incredible luck. In May, 14 members of a Wilmington-area family heading to Houston, Texas, for an Oct. 5 wedding were able to book tickets from New Castle Airport for a bargain price.

But Tuesday, with less than a month before the wedding, they received emails from Frontier Airlines telling them their flight had been canceled. The company, which discontinued service from Delaware to Houston as of Oct. 2, still will offer connecting service through Denver, but customers holding direct-to-Houston tickets must pay the difference in price – something industry analysts say is unusual.

“It was so convenient. Now it’s turned into, there’s drama here,” said Loria Bafundo, of Wilmington, whose boyfriend is the bride’s uncle. They were told that paying for a connecting flight would cost an additional $376 per person, each way, Bafundo said. “Honestly, I don’t think we’re going to go at all.”

Analysts said the inconvenience associated with an airline’s decision to discontinue a route from a small airport like New Castle is a part of life, especially one at Frontier, a small airline that has struggled financially.

But even under those conditions, Frontier is sending unhealthy signals by bucking an industry standard, said Jay Sorensen, president of the IdeaWorks Company, an airline consulting firm based in Milwaukee. As long as there’s a connecting flight, it’s normal for the airline to absorb the added costs to get the passengers to their destination, he said.

Frontier started service at New Castle Airport in July, offering flights to Houston, as well as Chicago-Midway, Denver, Orlando and Tampa, Fla. Service to Fort Myers, Fla., begins Nov. 16. Airline officials say ridership has been strong out of New Castle Airport for every destination except Houston.

Maureen Cushing, the bride’s aunt, said she was told that if she chose to take a connecting flight, she would need to leave the prior day and then spend 11 hours in transit.

Fliers making such a switch would have their change fee waived but would have to pay the difference in price, confirmed Kate O’Malley, Frontier spokeswoman.

“We offered fares as low as $59 each way as introductory offers between Wilmington and Houston, and unfortunately, those fares do not cover the cost of the connecting flights between Wilmington, Denver and Houston,” O’Malley said.

In interviews, various family members said they were offered a refund, which could take between 30-60 days to show up in their bank account. Bafundo said that she pressed a customer service agent to speed up the refund, and the agent agreed to do that, but she has yet to see the money come through. O’Malley said Frontier must process refunds within a week, “and then it is up to the credit card company when it will post to the customer’s account.”

Sorensen called what the family is experiencing “abysmal customer service.”

“You reaccommodate them, and you take care of business. To leave a group like this, it just screams that we could care less about what brand impression we’re making in Wilmington,” Sorensen said.

Bob Herbst, an airline industry consultant in Charleston, S.C., concurred that if an airline discontinues direct service but still offers service between two cities, even if it is a more expensive connection, the airline typically will pay the difference.

“Unfortunately, it’s just one of those issues. There are definitely more risks involved when you fly on a smaller airline, compared with a bigger airline, without a doubt,” Herbst said.

When things go wrong at a larger airline, “they have a lot more resources to fix it than a smaller airline,” Herbst said.

Sorensen said there are many small airlines that have the financial resources to absorb the financial impact of putting ticketed passengers on different flights, should they choose to discontinue their original route.

“This is not an indictment on small airlines or low-cost airlines. It’s an indictment on one specific airline, and that’s Frontier,” Sorensen said.

In interviews, several family members, including Bafundo, said they had accepted the refund because the connecting flight would have been too inconvenient, and added more nights in a hotel. The late notice, they said, was making it hard to get a good price on a different airline.

Bafundo said she and her boyfriend originally paid $100 per ticket each way, a fare upgraded from $79 to cover bag fees and a better seat.

The family was excited to travel together from a convenient airport at a great price, said Darlene Bunitsky, of Wilmington, an aunt of the bride. Now, Bunitsky said, the family is very upset.

For Frontier, Bunitsky said, “Of course, the almighty buck speaks.”

Original Article: