Frank and Norma Zarzecki are an adventurous duo.
To celebrate Frank’s 80th birthday, they decided to splurge on a nine-day cruise to Antarctica.
“It was an adventure trip — something different from any other trips we already had,” Norma Zarzecki said.
Hoping to save some money on the trip, they booked air fare through CheapOair.com. It would take several flights to get them to the cruise ship: Newark to Dallas/Ft. Worth, Dallas/Ft. Worth to Santiago, Chile, and then on to Punta Arenas, Chile.
The cost of their flights was $4,893.38.
The couple headed to Newark Liberty International Airport on Dec. 29, 2013 for their 5:30 p.m. flight to Dallas/Ft. Worth.
But the plane, an American Airlines flight, didn’t come in, and the flight was cancelled.
A ticketing agent told the couple to head to John F. Kennedy International Airport, where they could catch a direct flight to Santiago.
“We warned the agent in Newark that we will never catch the 10:45 p.m. flight since it was already 9:00 p.m.,” Norma Zarzecki said. “They insisted we had enough time although we were very much aware of the bad traffic between Newark and Kennedy. Sure enough, we missed the plane by half an hour.”
Now at JFK, American ticket agents got to work to help the couple get to their destination.
They were booked on a flight to Miami, departing 5:30 a.m. the next day. From there, the couple would fly to Panama City, to Santiago, and finally to Punta Arenas.
“We boarded the plane and waited over an hour on the tarmac,” Zarzecki said. “Then we were notified about a security problem. We wanted to get off the plane since we were already sure we would never make the connections.”
But the couple said they weren’t allowed off the plane, and after about 90 minutes of waiting, they were flown to Miami, arriving at approximately 11 a.m.
And as they predicted, they missed their connecting flight.
“I called our tour operator and they advised us to go back home because we’ll never be able to get on the ship for Antarctica and that they’ll rebook us the following week,” Zarzecki said.
So American booked the couple on a flight back to Kennedy because they’d have to wait all day before one was leaving for Newark.
“We accepted the Miami to Kennedy flight although we had to take a limo to go back to Newark from Kennedy,” Zarzecki said. “By this time, my husband and I were so extremely exhausted. He is 80 years old and I am 74.”
Back at home, the couple worked with their tour operator and they were able to go on their trip, without incident, the next week, but they had to pay for the flights all over again.
Before they left on their trip, and for 17 months after their return, they say they’ve been unsuccessful in getting a refund for the unused tickets.
Their travel insurance denied their claim, and many, many calls to CheapOair and American didn’t bring any positive results, they said.
“All they would tell us is, `We’re working on it,’ or, ‘We’re waiting to hear from the other company,'” said a very frustrated Zarzecki. “For two people on a fixed income, almost $5,000 is a lot of money to lose. We don’t expect to get back every penny, but we feel that we didn’t create the problem and we’re not responsible for it.”
They asked Bamboozled for help.
THE PING PONG MATCH
We reviewed the couple’s paperwork and their timeline of events, thinking it wasn’t unreasonable for at least some of the couple’s unused air fare to be refunded.
Then we embarked on a month-long ping pong match between American Airlines and CheapOair.
We started with American, sharing the couple’s experience and records of their flights — both those that were taken, and those that weren’t.
“What we’re seeing is that the original ticketing was CheapOair and they voided the tickets,” an American spokeswoman said on March 13. “We never actually got the money from CheapOair before it was cancelled.”
So we turned to CheapOAir, and it looked into the case.
“American should have received the full fare for the ticket — in fact, the traveler’s credit card statement should have shown a charge from American directly and not from CheapOair,” a spokeswoman said. “This could be an issue related to the ongoing integration of American and US Airways ticketing systems.”
She said American has all the records, and the airline “should be working to rectify this situation.”
So we went back to American, which researched the case again.
And again, it said American never received a payment from CheapOair.
We asked the Zarzeckis to pull their old credit card statement so we could see for certain who charged the couple for the tickets.
It was CheapOair.
So once again, we went back to CheapOair, this time with a copy of the credit card bill.
This time, the company’s story changed. Sort of.
“Yes, CheapOair charged the customer for the flight, however CheapOair have paid American Airlines for the full fare,” a spokeswoman said in a June 2 email. “When American changed the ticket for the customer, they applied the ticket value that was paid to CheapOair to the tickets that were reissued through American’s system.”
The spokeswoman again said that American has all the records and it “should be working to rectify this situation.”
So we went back to American.
It looked again, but the evidence of a payment wasn’t there. It insists it never received anything from CheapOair for the tickets.
“I’ve had them research hours on this,” the spokeswoman said of American’s customer service team on June 4. “We never did receive payment from CheapOair. They voided the tickets that same day, before we were paid for the tickets.”
American also said if it had been paid, it might be able to do something for the customers. But because it wasn’t paid, it couldn’t help.
“Now you see what we’ve been going through,” Norma Zarzecki said. “What’s mind boggling is where did the money go — somebody received it for sure.”
Indeed. And there’s got to be a paper trail.
American insists it wasn’t paid for the flights, so there wouldn’t be any documentation for it to show to support its side.
But if CheapOair insists it did pay American, it must have some proof that a payment was made.
So once again, we contacted CheapOair, asking it for such documentation.
It didn’t present us with any documents, but after another review, the company changed its mind.
“Customer satisfaction is our top priority and we worked with our airline partners on behalf of Mr. and Mrs. Zarzecki to rectify this situation,” the spokeswoman said. “We have reviewed the Zarzecki case and are processing a refund for their trip.”
The couple was delighted to get the news, saying they were told a check should arrive later this week.
“It was very, very frustrating that this happened. It’s a shame,” Zarzecki said. “I just want to make sure we actually get the check.”
Us too. We’ll let you know what happens.
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com.