Thursday, 6 June 2013

The Frontier Saga

You will no doubt have seen stories in the mainstream media about how flying from Bellingham is cheaper than flying from YVR. I can attest to that. We have just booked a trip to Denver - and the cost is less than a third than it would be flying from Vancouver. So far so good.

Now for the bad news. The flight is on Frontier Airlines. They fly one plane out of Bellingham four times a week  (M W F Sa) to their hub in Denver. The last time I went that way I connected to another Frontier flight to Kansas City. I recall that clearly since we sat in the plane on the ground because a hatch wouldn't close and they had to send for a replacement door. Took over an hour, but at least we were still hooked up to gate power. We got an apology, nothing more. On the way back the departure was scheduled for the early hours of the morning. I was concerned when I got to the gate to see that the plane had not yet arrived there. It never did. About an hour after it was supposed to depart there was a cancellation announcement. And a bit of a rush on the gate agents. They did indeed rebook people but that takes time. No doubt others did clever things on their smartphones, or went to Starbucks to use their free wifi. I stood in line. Eventually I got to talk to an agent, who - after quite a bit of wrangling - came up with a flight on Alaska that evening which connected through Seattle with one to Bellingham. And some vouchers.

The vouchers are the crux of the story. There were several printed on boarding card stock which bought meals at the airport - breakfast, lunch and dinner. And one that was torn from a printed piece of paper with the title "Electronic Travel Certificate"

Because that is hard to read, here is the bottom section, at full size

For a long time the memory of spending the entire day at Kansas City Airport (there is no transit there or a cheap way to get to any city centre) was enough to deter me from using this voucher. But the chance to use it to cut another $200 from the upcoming trip to Denver seemed good.

But if you compare what you see on the payment screen of the site (note the difference to the reference on the voucher - though that makes no difference to what you see) the wording in front of you is significantly different

The voucher says "when you get to the Add Payment screen" there is no tab with "Add Payment" - but it is easy to work out that the one above is intended. It then says"check mark Voucher" but that is not on this screen. You actually have select "Electronic Travel Certificate". I have to confess that I do not immediately associate a piece of copy paper with some computer printing and hand written scrawl with those words - but as I have pointed out that is on the top of the slip of paper. I was still looking for "voucher" - another screen away. 

So yes indeed, the screen on which I needed to enter my information was there all along, I just couldn't see it where the ETC had told me it ought to be. 

Being wise after the event, I should then have taken a deep breath. But like all airline ticket screens, the validity of the fare you are offered is time limited. You can't go away and come back later and expect the same low price to be available. (The Frontier website has timed out several times on me as I have been writing this.) There is some pressure to "buy now", and I succumbed to it thinking I had little time left. Equally there is a link on the payment page to the terms - which are much more extensive than those printed on the ETC. I now have had time to review those and my expectation that I could use the ETC after I had entered the credit card information was not possible. 

Now all of this could be an unfortunate accident. But I do not think so. I think these systems are carefully designed. Just like gift certificates, and - come to that - reward miles. All of these customer loyalty systems are designed to create a good impression, but their success depends on many of them not being used. That is why Aeroplan miles expire. That is why AirMiles are pushing hard for you to switch to AirMiles Cash from AirMiles Dream rewards. The overhang of frequent flyer miles was enough to push some airlines into bankruptcy.  I am sure Frontier Airlines management are only too aware of this. So the ETC has all kinds of caveats set about it in the expectation that it may well not be used. And not to make it too easy and straightforward for those who are not frequent flyers to actually figure out what is required of them in the time allotted. 

So when someone gives you a gift card (I got a Starbucks card from 1-800 GOT JUNK yesterday) or a voucher for future travel - do your homework first. It is supposed to make you feel better. It doesn't have to be actually useful. I do not go to Starbucks very much. Except in places like airports where they may be the best of a poor range of choices (as in Kansas City airport).  I did get to use two of my three meal vouchers - then the Alaska flight was called, on which of course the dinner voucher was useless. 

As is this Electronic Travel Certificate now. It expires on 10 September, is not transferrable, and it is not likely I will have a trip that way before then.

Perhaps I was expecting too much that I could get some more value of a cut price airline like Frontier. And also explains why the very nice lady I spoke to at Frontier was very patient, very polite but totally unflinching. I expect she hears the same story every shift. More than once. 


Not long after I posted this story, I also posted a link to it on Twitter. Then I got these replies - the way TweetDeck works the one on the bottom arrived just before the one on the top

So I Direct Messaged as requested. Since Tweets like those above are in the public domain, and what follows was not, I will summarize. I was told that I would get a refund of the $200 by adjustments made at Frontier. 


That was six days ago so I sent another DM. And after a further exchange of DMs, two emails arrived with new booking references for the same seats on the same flights.  Essentially they cancelled my erroneous booking, refunding the full amount, and immediately made a new one for the same travel, applied the ETC voucher and then charged my credit card with the balance. Good. I just wish that the "very nice lady" I spoke to had done that in the first place. 

And for the sake of completeness I can now report that my trip to Denver went without a hitch. On time both ways. And I also found that the cabin attendants will give you a glass of water for free. You are not obliged to buy bottled water.  

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