Sure, hurricanes and unseasonal blizzards can create major delays in air travel. And the ordinary air traveler faces plenty of exasperation via the heightened, and not always rational, security measures of the Transportation Safety Administration.
But Terri Weissinger, a native of Sonoma County, Calif., has suffered a new scale of airport indignity: Seeking to start a new life in Idaho, Weissinger was condemned to eight days in the limbo of the San Francisco International Airport--because she was unable to pay the fee her airline assessed for an additional piece of checked baggage.
As Michael Finney, a correspondent with the local ABC news affiliate KGO, reports, Weissinger "was broke" when she left for the airport. (You can watch Finney's report in the video clip above.)
"She had nothing but an airline ticket and $30 in her pocket," Finney notes. She also hadn't traveled by air in the last five years--meaning that when she stepped to the ticket counter to check her bags, she was in for a serious case of sticker shock. The U.S. Airways agent checking her in told her that it would cost $60 to check both her bags. Weissinger offered to pay the fee when she arrived in Idaho, but the agent declined. She also offered to leave one bag there at the San Francisco Airport. That, the agent explained, would be in violation of security regulations.
Weissigner's next move was to try to scare up the full fee by calling friends in the area. She came up empty, and by the time she'd finished working the phones, she missed her flight. That's when things started to get truly Kafka-esque. To get a new flight "she'd have to pay her bag fees plus $150 in change fees," Finney notes. Without a place to stay nearby, Weissinger stayed the night at the airport. She awoke to more bad news: U.S. Airlines explained that, since she couldn't pay a change fee, she'd have to book a new flight from scratch. That would run about $1,000.
For the next week, Weissinger could do nothing but wander up and down the San Francisco air terminal. At one point, she says, she was treated for anxiety at the terminal's medical clinic; when she sought police assistance, she reports, she was nearly brought in on vagrancy charges. Her ordeal stretched out over eight days--and it only came to an end with the generous assistance of parishioners at a chapel called "The Airport Church of Christ." They gave her $210 that covered the original fee arrangement that Weissinger was able to restore with U.S. Air--the $150 change fee together with the $60 to check her bags.
Weissinger says that she never saw any baggage fee notification when she booked her flight on the online travel service Orbitz--nor did her travel itinerary carry any such notification. There is, however, one small silver lining in this whole grim Tom Hanks-style saga: Weissinger was traveling in April, and since then, federal rules have forced online travel services and airline reservation sites to feature prominent notification of baggage fees prior to booking a flight. As for U.S. Airways, an airline representative told Finney that "We have apologized to Ms. Weissinger, but unfortunately are unable to offer a refund. When you purchase a non-refundable ticket, you accept the terms and conditions. If a passenger cannot travel with their bags, they need to make other arrangements."
Translation: An apology from U.S. Airways and $60 will get you two checked bags.
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- Michael Finney