A Consumer's Tale of Woe


Last year I had to go to London for a reading in the Paines Plough theatre of a play I had written. The reading was to start at 10.30am so I thought that instead of going the night before I would fly out early in the morning and stay just one night before returning home.

Three weeks before I went I booked a return flight from Belfast International to Heathrow via the internet, through Travel Select. Most people nowadays have personal computers with access to email and the world wide web and many do business across the net – personal banking, the ordering of books and CDs, etc.

I was a bit wary the first time I made an order from Amazon.com but generally since then I have had no problems and have been satisfied with the degree of security between transactions. In fact, just this week Amazon sent me the wrong book – one on golfing! – and when I telephoned they told me to keep it and that they would immediately despatch the right book, ‘The Diary of a Hangman’ by John Ellis, the British hangman who executed over two hundred people, including Roger Casement. (The book is part of research I am doing for another play I hope to write, about Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan, the two IRA men who assassinated Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson in London in 1922 and were hanged by Ellis, who later committed suicide.)

Anyway, when I booked my flight with Travel Select I asked for the ticket to be posted to my home, though I could have decided to collect the ticket at the airport. I received an email confirming that it would be sent through Royal Mail and that if it hadn’t arrived within two days of my departure I should contact their customer helpline. Two days before my departure on 12 September no ticket had arrived. I tried phoning their customer helpline but there seemed to be a lot of customers needing help that day and the next and every one of them were queued in front of me because I couldn’t get through.

Thinking that they might after all have sent the ticket to the airport I headed off at 5.30am for my 7am flight. I approached the man on the British Midlands desk.

“Could I have my ticket, please?… Is it not here?”

No, it wasn’t, but he could confirm that I was down as a passenger on flight BD71. I sought help at the British Midlands ticket desk and explained my problem. The lady there said that, given how early it was, there would be no one available at Travel Select in London to reissue a ticket. There was only one way to get to London today and that was to buy another ticket. Was there an available seat on flight BD71, I stupidly asked? Indeed, there was, she said, the seat that I had booked but for which I had no ticket. So, I had to buy another ticket. (What I found odd was that whereas the original ticket had cost me £104.40, the new ticket cost £84.80.)

Anyway, I got to London and saw to my business. When I returned home I made several futile phone-calls to the customer helpline but on 23 September eventually was given a name and address to complain to. I was advised to fax a copy of my second ticket, for which I could apply for a refund.

A few days later, a Jayne Sharratt replied, stating that their records showed that the first ticket was posted to me on 17 August and that they hadn’t been informed that it hadn’t arrived. She asked me to fax a copy of the second ticket (which I had already done). I faxed it again, on 2 October, and again on 15 October. I never heard from Jayne again so our relationship never had a chance to blossom. In her letter she had wrote: “Should you have any queries please do not hesitate to contact us, and be assured of our best attention at all times.”

Two months elapsed. No refund. I telephoned the number on her letter – 02077938285. A dead tone. I made several attempts to get through to Customer Services and waited and waited but all options were about recent bookings and confirmations and do you want to hire a car at the other end. Still, I would complain to poor telephonists who gave me other numbers to ring in Kazakhstan.

In mid-November I wrote to Jayne complaining that I had heard nothing – and I heard nothing. I asked her to let me know the response of the airline so that I could pass it on to my solicitor. Nothing.

Every month I would ring to let them know that I hadn’t gone away. On one occasion I asked the operator to check for another number for Travel Select. She gave me, 02077932700. I rang. “Sorry, this number is temporarily out of order.”

Last Thursday I rang up the booking number, pretending to be inquiring about a ticket but then suddenly declared that I was a journalist and was writing a story about how shabbily they treated their customers. Suddenly, I was put through to a very sympathetic representative, Mark, to whom I explained everything. He gave me his number and extension and said that I should have got a refund and that he would ring me back on Saturday with the result of his inquiries.

They owe me £84.80 and I have probably spent that on phone calls and lost hours of work but I don’t care. I expect they expect me, and all those others who complain, to eventually give up and go away and kick a lamppost. But we are made of stouter stuff, we consumer crusaders who know how to break the most intransigent of faceless institutions.

On Saturday, my new friend Mark forgot to phone me.

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison