Not knowing wife’s name gets her stuck in China

When you take the SAT, you get 200 points for spelling your name right. Ever wonder why? Well, you should ask Wen Ling Lian and her husband, Robert Schlund. Lian left Wayne, Michigan for China, on a trip to visit her family. While in flight, she saw that her name had an “e” stuck on the end of it. Though not a problem in the United States, she knew it would be when she tried to leave China later. Fortunately, a resolution was found in blaming a company that hadn’t done anything wrong.

So, here’s the deal. Lian was on the ground in China and running out of time. Her name was wrong on her ticket, the result of an error made by her husband when making the ticket purchase with online travel agency CheapOair. By the time Lian and Schlund realized what had happened, of course, nothing could be done … except to buy another ticket. CheapOair could not change the name on the ticket, as it’s a matter of airline policy that tickets are non-transferable after purchase – meaning that the name can’t be changed. The online travel agency can’t make the change without the airline’s consent.

But, this didn’t stop Schlund from trying. Rather than spring for the new ticket to get his wife home, which would have cost him a few hundred dollars – or even contact the airline, China Eastern Air – he decided to pass the buck. After claiming that the online travel agency wouldn’t help him – an absurd notion given the fact that it does not have access or ability to do so without airline consent – and never even bothering to contact the airline, he decided to turn to a consumer advocate the media. Schlund shared his sob story with WDIV – Detroit’s “Ruth to the Rescue,” still refusing to take responsibility for not knowing his wife’s name … and to think I used to catch hell for not remembering anniversaries!

%Gallery-76818%Well, this is where a new problem arises: the broadcast isn’t accurate. CheapOair, which got Lian a new ticket at its own expense even though her husband had made the mistake (eating
$200, according to a spokesperson for the online travel agency, despite making a mere $4 on the original transaction), had no obligation to do anything at all. Nonetheless, in a moment of chest-thumping, “Ruth to the Rescue” claims to have affected a remedy because she got involved. Really, she was an accomplice to injustice, as a company was compelled to pay for the obvious mistakes of a customer. Also, the loaded report emphasizes that the ticket was purchased in October, which is wholly irrelevant since the passenger didn’t notice the problem until the plane was in the sky.

So, the net effect was that the only party that could have made the change wasn’t contacted by the passenger. The party that could not do anything to help – the online travel agency – was put in the hot seat publicly and forced to assume an expense unnecessarily.

Is corporate greed the culprit? I doubt it. I’ve spent $4 on a cup of coffee for a colleague and didn’t ask for a dime in return. So, I don’t see CheapOair risking its brand for that amount. And, the company had earned the cash, a sum insufficient to bear Abraham Lincoln’s likeness. Instead, it’s a case of inattention and irresponsibility on the part of a customer.

When I reached out to CheapOair about this, I learned not only about the net $196 loss it sustained in order to cope with the effects of a customer who had made a mistake and found a platform but also that the company expended several man-hours across several departments to address media inquiries (including mine), a fact that any business mind could identify immediately. Schlund’s mistake caused a cost of several thousand dollars to be assumed by a company that hadn’t done anything wrong.

“Our hands were tied on the original issue,” said the spokesperson, after explaining the technical process by which data is captured from the website and sent to the airlines (explained at a high level, not in technical-ese, for my benefit, I confess). “We literally could not do anything – we physically aren’t able to change the customer’s name in the system,” she continued, “without a code supplied by the airline. We have an entire department that tries to secure these and other waivers for our customers, but it’s ultimately up to the carrier.” She added, “We sympathize with Mr. Schlund; we really do. But, we can’t change what we can’t access. It really is that simple.”

Now, I’m not a fan of the airline industry – anyone who has read my work knows that. I routinely bemoan the paucity of customer service in the space. But, we have to be realistic. Asking these businesses do the impossible for us just isn’t an option. And, as customers, we do have to be ready to take responsibility for our own buying decisions. We have enough to complain about already – there’s no need to invent more.

[photo by autumn_bliss via Flickr]