GUEST COMMENTARY: Why we need consumer protections
Last week, I had a wretched experience trying to buy airplane tickets. I am working for an upcoming month in Brazil. I wished to buy tickets for my husband and I to fly from Minnesota to Belo Horizonte, the third largest city in Brazil — the prosperous mining and auto manufacturing capital of the province of Minas Gerais.
Flying from Minneapolis to Toronto to Sao Paulo to Belo Horizonte turned out to be the best option. The main carrier is Air Canada, but they couldn't provide us with the last leg of the trip. So I went to online Travelocity, a travel fare aggregator. I found flights with good turnaround times. With my credit card, I purchased the two tickets for $1,672 each.
The next morning, I received an email from Travelocity stating: "At this time the airline has not acknowledged the flight and/or fare that you originally purchased. Your reservation has not been ticketed and without confirmation from the airline, we are unable to ticket this reservation. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused; however, it is important that you contact our offices at ..."
I was distressed. The charges were still pending on my credit card. I called. A very nice man helped me. He couldn't clarify why Travelocity could not provide the tickets. But we could fly a day earlier. But the flight times required much longer layovers — nine hours in Toronto instead of four, and eight hours in Sao Paulo instead of three. However, he said, "You will save money because these tickets are only $1,432 each — a savings of almost $500!" He asked me twice if I'd accept these tickets. I said yes.
I never received a confirmation of the altered flights (still haven't, days later). The original charges of $1,672 each were still pending on my credit card. I called the customer service line at Travelocity. The woman who answered said the charges could not be changed. I wrote again to Travelocity protesting that this was not a change initiated by me but by Travelocity, that the flights were neither the days nor the times we paid for. I called Air Canada and found out that Travelocity had only paid them the $1,432 that I had agreed to it!
I called American Express. I pay $55 a year for my Am Ex card. Why? Because I am assured of an attentive and helpful person. And because they will take action. The woman I reached explained the charges are only pending and that American Express would put a watch on them. If Travelocity does claim the money, she said, you can contest the charges and we can reverse them. She asked if I had documentation, and I said yes.
I wrote again to Travelocity. "This is completely unacceptable. Either you issue me the ticket for the March 30 flights for $3,358.32 for with better layovers on our preferred date, or you charge me the price quoted by your agent whom I called at your request, $2,864.32 ($1,432.16 per ticket) for a less preferable day, March 29, and with much longer layover times." I noted that Air Canada had confirmed that they had only been paid the lesser amounts, and that I would continue pursuing this issue with both American Express and the relevant consumer protection agencies.
The next morning, when I check my credit card site, I found I had prevailed — they only charged me the lower, quoted rates! But so much hassle!
I've needed consumer protection before. Once, for months, my landline service, Frontier, continued to charge me for AT&T long distance service that I had cancelled. When I spoke with them, they said they had a billing agreement with AT&T and I would have to deal with them. The charges kept coming. I continued to pay only the Frontier portion. Finally, I wrote to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, sending copies to Frontier and AT&T. Almost immediately I received a call from an AT&T vice president who apologized and said she would be sure to eliminate all past and future charges. She did.
Our consumer protections are vulnerable to President Trump's recent executive order to begin undoing the rules and regulations in the Dodd-Frank Act. That 2011 Congressional law set up the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, an independent agency funded through the Federal Reserve Bank. The Act was a forceful response to the Great Recession caused by the excesses of Wall Street, the banks, the insurance companies, the built environment industry, and lax government oversight. I have had several friends and family members who have asked the agency for help and received it. The Act encourages companies to treat consumers fairly. Let's hope it survives!