For travelers stuck in LAX shooting, getting refunds should be easier

A woman who missed her flight because of the shooting at LAX encounters tone-deaf customer service from a travel booking site and a hotel.

Airlines and hotels don't have the best track record for showing compassion to travelers who face emergency situations. Refunds and fee waivers can be hard to come by.

But Manhattan Beach resident Laura Mandracchia experienced a very different level of corporate indifference after she had to deal with missed flights and being a no-show at a Mexican resort.

Her excuse? She was in Terminal 3 of Los Angeles International Airport a week ago when a gunman opened fire with an assault rifle, killing a Transportation Security Administration officer and wounding several others.

"I was having something to drink upstairs while waiting for my flight," Mandracchia, 49, recalled. "Suddenly we heard a pop, pop, and then some commotion.

"Then another pop, pop, pop, maybe eight or nine times," she said. "It was obviously gunshots. It couldn't have been anything else. People started yelling for everyone to get down. We heard more shots, another eight or nine.

"After that we heard four or five shots, but these were different, like from a different gun. And then it was silent."

What Mandracchia heard was the gunman — identified by authorities as Paul Ciancia — shooting his way into the terminal and moving in her direction, and then being shot down by police.

Mandracchia was forced to remain at the airport with other travelers for seven hours as investigators secured the premises. Needless to say, she didn't make her flight to Mexico, where she was to attend a friend's wedding.

What happened next shows corporate behavior at its best and its worst.

Mandracchia was flying on Virgin America from L.A. to Cancun. She contacted the airline Saturday morning and explained what happened.

"Virgin didn't hesitate," Mandracchia said. "They immediately refunded my $350 ticket, no questions asked. They said they were very sorry that I had to go through something like that."

An airline employee phoned Mandracchia a few hours later to say that her checked bag had been located and that Virgin would deliver it to her home free of charge the next day.

A classy response to a scary episode.

Mandracchia also contacted the online travel agency Expedia, through which she'd booked a flight on United Airlines for her return to L.A. She explained why she needed to cancel her ticket.

An Expedia rep got back to her with word that Mandracchia would receive an "airline credit" for the full value of her $285.55 United ticket. But there were a couple of catches.

Mandracchia would have to use the credit by Sept. 7, 2014, or it would disappear. And when she used the credit, she'd be hit with a $200 penalty for having had the temerity to monkey around with her travel plans.

"I was, like, 'Are you serious?'" Mandracchia said.

Her next call was to the Playacar Palace resort in Playa del Carmen, near Cancun, where she had booked a three-night stay for about $1,000.

Mandracchia explained her situation to a hotel staffer, who replied that because she hadn't canceled her reservation in a timely manner — that is, while she was hunkered down amid gunfire a day earlier — she'd have to forfeit her entire payment.

This, of course, was nuts.

Cessie Cerrato, a spokeswoman for Palace Resorts, told me the hotel staffer was unprepared to handle a customer request like this.

"The automatic response was that she was a no-show," Cerrato said.

No, the automatic response should have been: "Oh my God, I'm so sorry that this happened to you. Of course we'll figure out some way to accommodate your needs."

The fact that the staffer stuck to the resort's cancellation playbook speaks volumes about the need for businesses large and small to empower workers to deal with customers on a case-by-case basis.

Not surprisingly, Cerrato told me that Palace Resorts would refund Mandracchia's full payment. She said the company was in the process of doing this anyway, even before I called.

As for that $200 penalty fee for a new airline ticket, Expedia pointed a finger at United and blamed the airline. United placed the blame on Expedia, saying the travel agency must not have understood that changes related to the LAX shooting wouldn't be subject to fees.

Charles Hobart, a United spokesman, said the airline would make sure that Mandracchia — and anyone else whose travel plans were affected by the shooting — doesn't face extra charges.

"Customers can contact us directly if they have any questions," he said. "We'll work with them."

I passed all this along to Mandracchia, who expressed relief that all this nonsense was behind her.

Her experience might prompt some people to consider travel insurance, which Mandracchia had declined for her trip. Such policies typically cover "terrorist incidents," which should include someone shooting up the airport.

But such protection should be unnecessary. Do the travel and hospitality industries really want to be thought of as completely heartless? There's only one reasonable response to an extraordinary situation like this, and that's to do the stand-up thing.

Mandracchia ended up being treated fairly by all concerned. But no one should have to work this hard for a little human decency.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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