Tourists seek solace after trips go awry Travel organizations, federal agencies field vacationers' gripes

August 11, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Buried in government file cabinets and advocacy group document rooms are the stories of thousands of bad vacations.

Consider the pathos detailed in their complaints: The elderly woman who was denied a refund for a trip to Las Vegas even though her husband died as they were about to pack. The tourist who was so traumatized by her cruise ship roommate she slept on deck for a week. The bride who began her honeymoon by sitting in a befouled airplane seat.

With travel at record levels this summer, Washington is awash in protests from unhappy voyagers who don't know where else to turn.

"People generally don't write the federal government with complimentary letters," says Norman Strickman, an air-travel watchdog who heads the U.S. Department of Transportation's Aviation Consumer Protection Division. "We're on the front lines over here."

What can Washington do for these aggrieved citizens?

In serious cases, the federal government and national travel groups can crack down on travel scheme artists, bring erring companies to justice, damage travel agents' reputations by banning them from industry organizations, and informally mediate with travel companies to get customers apologies and refunds.

But not always. The man who wrote to the Department of Transportation because a flight attendant spilled orange juice on his lap did not get much revenge, nor did the woman who complained to the American Society of Travel Agents that she needed a refund because her stateroom was directly over the cruise ship's disco.

Writing Washington is not always about getting results: For some travelers, it's about winning an audience long after the rest of the world has stopped listening.

Robert Serr hoped someone, anyone, in a position of authority would hear him out. "I just thought people should know," said Serr, who believes his honeymoon was ruined by what he suspects were the remnants of a dirty diaper on his wife's airplane seat.

"Oh my God, I had the worst experience I ever had," said Serr, a 23-year-old computer technician who still feels outraged for his wife, Jenny, a waitress. "That's all we talked about for our entire holiday. We got into arguments because I wouldn't shut up about it."

After the incident -- which happened on a Northwest Airlines flight from Minneapolis to Florida -- Serr fired off an angry e-mail message to the Department of Transportation's Aviation Consumer Protection Division. The department reached federal public health authorities on Serr's behalf, urged Northwest to contact Serr and entered his complaint in a report on the airline's performance. Northwest gave Serr two free tickets for a future trip.

Such stories make a point: Having the time of your life can really make you miserable.

The Department of Transportation receives so many complaints it created a SWAT team to act on the most serious problem flights. The Federal Trade Commission created "Operation Trip-Up" to combat travel fraud. National associations, such as the American Society of Travel Agents and the National Consumers League, are inundated with bitter testimonials from outraged vacationers and collect records on the worst abusers.

Strickman, the Transportation Department official, compiles monthly performance reports on 10 major U.S. carriers. Even the nit-picky complaints get included, like the one from the Ohio woman who protested that when her airline put her in a hotel for a night, it gave her "male-oriented deodorant."

Another traveler reported that a nasty flight attendant made her cry after accusing her of taking "everything plus [her] underwear" in her carry-on luggage.

Travelers don't take these slights lightly: One Massachusetts woman was so outraged about a bad flight that she warned Strickman's team, "If I don't hear back from you I'll be calling the White House." A New Yorker whose husband died five days before their Vegas vacation wrote in a shaky hand that trying to get a refund for his plane tickets is "a nightmare" that will not end.

Travel industry booming

Despite the headaches, this is a blockbuster year for travel. Industry analysts estimate that 251 million people will vacation this summer, up from 244 million last year.

With more trips come more complaints. The Transportation Department's numbers are up in all categories: Flight delays, mishandled baggage, overbookings and consumer complaints. Calls and letters reached 7,665 last year, up from 5,985 five years ago. Of the major airlines, Northwest got the most complaints in June -- 112 people reported problems, the latest statistics show.

Private companies prefer to handle customer service gripes in-house. But Washington makes those complaints public and often leaves the industry red in the face. Northwest flew 4 million people in June, but only the unhappy ones stand out.

"In June, 112 people were so disappointed with our service they were moved to write the government about us," said Northwest spokesman Jon Austin. "That's disappointing."

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