The Orbitz Fiasco

Posted by Arlo on Oct 26, 2011 under Postcard Valet, Travel

Imagine this:  Months ago, you found a great deal on an international airline ticket and you decided, on the spot, to change your travel plans in order to take advantage of it.  You bought the tickets, received itineraries via email, and promptly forgot all about them.  Then, on the day before your flight, you decided to hop online to see if you could do a web check-in, perhaps get early seat assignments.  That’s when you discovered that your flight had been rescheduled for the day before and had, in fact, departed two hours ago.

That’s what happened to Oksana and me in Moscow a couple weeks ago.

Let me back up, tell it from the beginning.

We were in Aswan, Egypt, at the end of July.  Our next couple of weeks were planned out, but we had a deadline on the horizon.  My Russian visa, which we’d obtained in Argentina, had set dates.  I could enter any time after July 1st, but I had to leave the country by the end of September.  We wanted to spend at least a full month in Russia, so that meant we only had one month, August, to travel through the Middle East and Europe.

While searching around for flights online, Oksana stumbled on a remarkable deal: One-way, Moscow-to-Bangkok, SriLankan Airlines tickets for $339.40 each.  The date was perfect, September 28th, but we were planning on entering Russia near Moscow and traveling to the Far East over the course of our month-long stay.  Oksana spent a few more hours crunching the numbers and discovered something interesting: Even accounting for one-way tickets back to Moscow from Kamchatka, we could still fly to Thailand for around half the price of booking tickets out of Vladivostok.   On the spot, we decided to cross the whole of Russia twice and booked our tickets through Orbitz.

Fast forward to September.  We entered Russia via Estonia and spent a week in St. Petersburg.  From there, we took the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Irkutsk, then flew to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy – Oksana’s hometown.  We spent a couple weeks there with her brother and actually changed our airline tickets so that we could get back to Moscow sooner and spend an extra day there.  Our Aeroflot flight left on the 27th at 5:30pm and arrived in Moscow, nine hours later, at… 6:30pm.

We crashed early that night, with the strangest case of jetlag I’ve ever experienced.

The next evening, around 7:30pm on the 28th, Oksana decided to get online and see about our seat assignments.  Our flight was scheduled to leave the following day, on the 29th, at 5:40pm, but she couldn’t find the flight anywhere on the SriLankan Airlines web site.  Confused, she went back to her email and dug up the latest message from Orbitz.

At first blush, nothing looked awry.  The big, bolded sub-head still read “Moscow to Bangkok 9/29/11,” but further down, the itinerary actually began with “Wednesday, September 28, 2011.” That’s where she noticed that the flight had left right on time… just 24 hours before we expected it to!

A careful read of the rest of the email turned up this phrase in a teeny-tiny font size:

Hi! This is from orbitz. Please call orbitz because there has been a schedule change in your reservation. Thank you.

Click to enlarge


Oksana looked up from her computer. “Oh my God.  I think we just missed our flight!”

We debated briefly whom to call first: SriLankan Airlines or Orbitz.  We settled on Orbitz because they were the ones we gave our money to.  Since we were in a foreign country, Oksana used Skype.

We were on Skype with Orbitz customer support for the next two-and-a-half hours.  The first representative helpfully called SriLankan Airlines on our behalf.  Despite having to wait on hold, we appreciated it, as we were sure they could get to an agent faster than we could.  Unfortunately, she came back with the following information:  The flight had indeed already left and because we weren’t there, we were flagged by SriLankan Airlines as “no-shows.”

Oksana patiently told her that yes, we understood all that.  Could we please get on with either rebooking our flight or, at the very least, getting a refund?  That’s when we learned what being flagged as a no-show really means.  We were not entitled to a refund and to get a rebooking, we’d have to pay a €150 no-show penalty, along with a €100 change ticket fee.  After doing the math, we realized the “refund” for our tickets amounted to exactly one U.S. dollar.  As far as SriLankan Airlines was concerned, we had two options: One dollar or no dollars.

That was unacceptable and we were prepared to hold Orbitz responsible.  We’d looked up when we’d received the email from them and it had been sent in the middle of our original PK-to-Moscow flight.  Even if we’d somehow been able to read it, we still would have missed the flight that had been rescheduled out from under us.

Oksana asked to speak with the Orbitz representative’s supervisor.  She went half way through the same conversation again before the stress and anger at the situation made her start stumbling over her words.  She handed the phone to me when representative #2 put us her hold to call SriLankan Airlines again.

When the supervisor came back, she was surprised to find me on the line instead of Oksana.  I informed her that my wife was too angry to continue and that I would be working with her, instead.  I’m usually much calmer about these things on the phone, you see.

But my patience was quickly put to the test, too.  When we got the exact same story (no-show status, no refund, no rebooking), I asked to speak with her supervisor.  While waiting once again on hold, I began to tweet my frustrations:


I got a lot of sympathy and suggestions from friends on Twitter and Facebook and one surprising mention from @orbitzcareteam:

That sounded promising.  I followed her instructions and sent a brief message telling her that we were still on hold, at our wits ends, and if she could help, great!

A few minutes later, Vikki responded that she couldn’t access our ticket while it was still open and to contact her after our phone call with Orbitz customer care.

We hit a dead end with the third level of Orbitz phone support.  They tried the same call to SriLankan Airlines with the same results.  They explained to us that Orbitz wouldn’t refund our money because, aside from a small commission, they didn’t get any of our money in the first place.  I asked to talk to a fourth-level supervisor and was told that I had reached the highest level.  Oksana took the phone back from me at that point and tried her best to talk to someone with more authority.  As I started composing an email to Vikki, I heard her saying, “Are you the CEO of Orbitz?  No?  Then you have a boss.  Let me speak with your boss…”

I sent Vikki from @orbitzcareteam a rather long email (if you want to read it, click here) catching her up to where we were – which, chronologically speaking, was closing in on midnight, Moscow time.  I told her that, because of my visa issues, we had to find a new flight ASAP.  If she was going to help resolve this, she’d better do it soon.  By the time I’d sent the email, Oksana had hung up on Orbitz and was searching for the cheapest flight we could find on one day’s notice.  I went back to tweeting.

That sentiment was absolutely, 100% true, by the way.  Both Oksana and I felt like we were going to throw up, dealing with this airline mess, whereas we were both quite calm, physiologically-speaking, when we were mugged in Zanzibar.

I received Vikki’s first reply within 15 minutes.  It was very reassuring.

I will be handling your case from here.  I will be getting back to you within the hour.

By the time we heard from her, the best price Oksana could find for a flight was $977.40, for the both of us, on Emirates Airlines.  Ironically, we would have to purchase the tickets through Orbitz.

The first thing I noticed about Vikki was her southern accent.  It reassured me that we weren’t still connected to an outsourced call center.  We talked for about 20 to 30 minutes, but didn’t get any closer to resolving our problem.  She had reviewed our case, called up a list of flights that could get us to Bangkok, called SriLankan Airlines on our behalf, and had hit the same wall as the other Orbitz customer care representatives.  She listened to me vent, however, and calmly told me what her company could and could not do for us.

The tickets she found were twice as expensive at the ones Oksana had found on Orbitz (which was weird.)  I told her that we could handle our own ticket purchases and that, honestly, if Orbitz wasn’t going to step up and offer us a refund for this mess, we wouldn’t be purchasing anything through them, anyway.

Vikki understood our viewpoint, but told us in detail why Orbitz couldn’t do that.  With literally hundreds of flights being rescheduled every day, they’ve created an entire division inside their company to handle rebookings and notifications.  The best she could do, she said, was issue us a $300 voucher for future travel, credited to our credit card.

I remember sighing and telling her that I didn’t want to start haggling about the amounts, but if she could see it to increase the voucher by $39.40, that would completely cover the price of our lost tickets.  That’s when she informed me that it was a single voucher for $300, not one for each of us…

I vented a little more.  I can understand postponing a flight by 24-hours, but having it depart a full day before?  How is that fair?  What if you were flying on business?  How can airline companies get away with stuff like that?

We ended the call a short time later.  Vikki encouraged us to purchase the Emirates Airline tickets we’d found for $977 and promised us that she would keep working with SriLankan Airlines to get us a refund.  In the meantime, we could count on a voucher of at least $300.

After hanging up, Oksana called our hotel in Bangkok, to see if they would shift our 3-day reservation by one day.  We’d booked that through and missed the no-charge cancellation deadline by just two hours.  The hotel staff in Bangkok was no help; it looked like we were going to eat the cost of a night’s stay there, too.

This is how we ended the night:

The next morning, something interesting happened.  I received another mention on Twitter from @flysrilankan:

I’d lying if I said I wasn’t hoping to get their attention when I mentioned them in that “dealing with this @flysrilankan shit” tweet.  It surprised me that anyone noticed at all, seeing as how the account had only ever tweeted one time, all the way back in February of 2010.  I sent them an email similar to the first one I sent to Vikki and told them we would be traveling soon, but I’d be very interested in hearing back from them.  I never did.

(But here’s a funny thing: Check out their twitter account now and you’ll see that @flysrilankan has dozens of tweets dating back to September 29th!  Could my public complaint – not to mention my followers’ helpful mentions! – have been the kick-in-the-pants that SriLankan Airlines’ PR department needed to recognize the importance of social media?  I think maybe it was!)

The next day, our last in Moscow, we had lunch with a friend, snapped a few photos in Red Square, and caught a late train to the airport.  Technically, we flew out on the 30th, the very last day of eligibility on my visa.  The next day, we had a 17-hour layover in Dubai.

That morning, in the Dubai airport, I checked my email and saw a new message from Vikki.

[…] As I advised, I have been researching, in depth, as to what took place with your flight reservation.  Upon further research, have discovered that the flight was changed on 29 July.  Admittedly, for some unknown reason, our schedule change department failed to notify you.  However, your flight schedule was updated in your “My Trips.”  This is why it was reflected in your “Prepare for your Trips” information.

Arlo, we cannot apologize enough for not notifying you when the flight was changed, and I will be addressing this matter.  I am waiting for a reply from the Sri Lankan representative today.  Please know that I will continue to work with you to resolve this situation as soon as possible.

I shared the news with Oksana.  We thought it was a very good sign that Orbitz was admitting that they were at fault and Vikki’s explanation helped make sense of the situation we’d found ourselves in.  It also explained why the rescheduling info was in such small print in our “Prepare for your Trips” email.  They weren’t trying to hide it; they had simply assumed we’d already received an email warning us about the date change!  I sent an email back to Vikki, thanking her, and letting her know we’d be patiently awaiting further information.

One thing still bothered me, however.  Okay, yeah, they failed to notify us about the rescheduled flight, but if they had sent it on September 29th, it still would have been too late for us to do anything about it!  I didn’t realize it then, but I had only skimmed Vikki’s email.  Our flight hadn’t been rescheduled on September 29th, it had been changed way back on July 29th!

That makes all the difference in the world!  Suddenly I was a little less mad at SriLankan Airlines for moving a flight ahead by 24 hours.  With that much lead time, anyone could change their plans.  If, of course, they receive an email about it.

A few days later, as we were getting over our jetlag in Bangkok, we received some good news from Vikki.  Because we were not at fault, SriLankan Airlines had agreed to reimburse us our full ticket price.  In addition, Vikki was still prepared to offer us that $300 voucher for our troubles.  $678.80 for the original tickets, plus the $300 voucher, added up to $978.80.  That was $1.40 more than we paid for our replacement tickets on Emirates Airlines.

I composed an email to Vikki:

That’s great news. Yes, please do redeem that voucher. It sounds as though both the voucher and the refund from SriLankan will just barely cover the cost of our replacement tickets (though we’ll still have lost one day of our hotel reservations in Bangkok — I can live with that.)

Thank you for helping us out in this very stressful situation. Although we had problems with the first 3 tiers of Orbitz customer support, we have nothing but good things to say about our interaction with you.


Arlo & Oksana Midgett

But that’s not quite the end of it.  Vikki wrote back:

Dear Arlo,

I will be glad to replace the loss of the night at the hotel.  However, for my records, it would be great if you wouldn’t mind sending something which would reflect the charge.  You can attach it to this email, or fax it to xxx xxx xxxx.

This, people, is how you do customer support! 

Orbitz didn’t have to admit that their Schedule Change Department made an error; they could have let us go on believing that we somehow missed their email.  Also, I gave Orbitz and easy out when I said I could live with losing one night’s hotel reservations ($54.33), but they stepped up and paid for that, too!

After all was said and done, we came out of this one dollar and forty cents ahead.  That isn’t enough to compensate us for all the time we spent on this fiasco, not to mention the stress involved, but you know what?  It’s more than enough to ensure we’ll stay Orbitz customers for a long time to come!

Thank you, Vikki.  It was a pleasure doing business with you.