Travel Comment

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Holiday plans vanish into thin air

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You're halfway around the world and hit the airline desk with your ticket - to discover there's no plane today. In fact, no plane ever again. The airline has gone bust. What do you do?

If you're Doreen and Stewart Douglas you won't panic - rather, you'll congratulate yourself on having travel insurance and make another booking on a different airline.

But for this couple from Turua, near Thames, a trip to see daughter Jennie and two grandsons (including a brand new baby) in Houston, Texas, was an expensive disaster.

The Douglases booked their fares (apart from the Los Angeles-Houston legs, which son-in-law Kevin sorted out from Houston) through reputable online operator Jetabroad at the beginning of the year, and left on their two-week break in May.

The plan was to stop on the way back in Fiji for a couple of days and, to allow them to pick up a connection from Hawaii to Suva, they were booked on an ATA Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu. So far, so good.

The couple had a great time with their faraway family and, on the homeward leg, arrived in Los Angeles ready to savour two or three days in the Fijian sun.

With just three hours to their connecting flight, they arrived at the ATA desk to find ... nothing. When they asked other airline staff for help, they got the bad news: ATA Airlines was bankrupt and no longer flying.

Certain that their insurance would cover such a problem - and lacking the time to properly investigate - they decided to book direct to Auckland on Qantas, bypassing Fiji (and their already-paid-for accommodation) because there was no chance of connecting with the Honolulu-Suva flight.

When they reached home they got the bad news: their Visa gold card insurance didn't cover them for expenses resulting from airline failure. What's more, they discovered that ATA (a major discount carrier operating primarily between Hawaii and California) had collapsed on April 2 - a full month before they left New Zealand.

Of course, the bankruptcy drew no publicity here, so the Douglases weren't alerted to the problem through newspapers or news bulletins. But what about the booking agency - surely it should have made contact?

The Douglases insist they were not contacted in any way by Jetabroad, but the agency's principals have a different story. They say the couple were among 200 bookings affected by the ATA collapse, and four staff worked non-stop for several days and contacted everyone involved ... except the Douglases.

Executive director Alex Snead said from the company's Sydney base that his staff tried to reach them by email, phone and text, and could provide evidence of that effort. They had come to the conclusion that the couple were probably away from home, perhaps overseas.

The Douglases now accept Jetabroad took reasonable steps to alert them, but are at a loss to explain why the message didn't get through. They do wonder why the company didn't send a letter by courier (which is how they received their tickets) when email, phone and text didn't bring a response.

"It is all very strange," says Doreen Douglas. "When you go off happily into the sunset on a lovely holiday to see the family, you think you'll be fine, especially with insurance to back you up. But here we were, blissfully unaware the whole time we were away - and for a month before we left - that we were heading for big problems."

Fortunately for the Douglases, the Los Angeles-Honolulu portion of their fares (a total of $521) was held by a third-party airline - and they were pleased to hear from the Herald they will in time get that back.

But their total loss will still be over $3000 and they are now wiser as well as poorer.

Travellers are protected if a bonded travel agency they have dealt with strikes trouble, but a bankrupt airline is another thing altogether. The international airline industry constantly dips in and out of tough times, and a travel insurance policy that protects passengers from the flow-on expenses of financial failure will be hard to find.

It's one of those things travellers have to take on the chin, but Googling airlines that are relatively unknown in this part of the world before you book may give a clue to stability. A web search may have returned the news that ATA initially filed for bankruptcy protection in 2004. But it recovered then and there were no outward signs of any financial distress entering 2008.

The Douglases' case lends weight to the suggestion that, while web booking sites offer great deals and are very efficient, there's nothing quite like the friendly local travel agency if things start going wrong.

 - Bruce Morris

 

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