Family says nyet to Finnair's ticket policy

A family seeking to change a booked flight to no longer include Russia amid a warning of anti-U.S. sentiment is told by Finnair the action would cost an extra $2,800.

Airlines will never win a prize for sensitivity to customers' problems. They typically won't budge on change fees and ticketing costs.

But you'd think that even the most hard-hearted carrier would acknowledge that, all things considered, this isn't the best time for a family trip to Russia.

The situation in Ukraine prompted the U.S. State Department to issue a travel advisory March 14 warning Americans about "the possibility of violence or anti-U.S. actions directed against U.S. citizens or U.S. interests."

Finnair, however, had no problem telling members of a Buena Vista, Calif., family that they'd have to pony up almost $3,000 in extra charges if they wanted to cancel the Moscow leg of an upcoming trip to Europe.

Marina Spor, 45, was born in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, about an hour and half drive from the Crimean peninsula. She immigrated to the United States with her parents at the age of 7.

Spor's husband is of Norwegian stock, so the couple thought it would be fun to let their kids get a taste of their roots with a "heritage" trip to Europe this summer.

They still want to make the trip and still plan to cross the ocean both ways on Finnair. They just figure they'll remain in Norway and do Russia some other time.

"This isn't about us changing our minds for personal reasons," Marina Spor told me. "This is an international incident."

She makes an excellent point: East-West tensions are at a boiling point because of Russia's invasion and annexation of Crimea.

And Spor's not asking Finnair to cancel the family's entire trip. She just wants to eliminate the Moscow-Helsinki leg of her family's planned return to Southern California. They'd like to fly straight home from the Finnish capital.

Spor booked the trip for $5,610.96 in early February, about a month before Russian troops started taking control of Crimea.

The original itinerary entailed flying from Los Angeles to the Norwegian town of Stavanger with a stopover in London. The family then planned to fly on Aeroflot from Oslo to Moscow, stay in the Russian capital a few days and head home on Finnair via Helsinki.

Spor said she lost a few hundred dollars canceling the Aeroflot flight from Oslo to Moscow, which came as no surprise. The Russian airline didn't see the situation in Ukraine as any big deal and thus stood firm on its cancellation fees.

However, Spor was expecting at least a modicum of flexibility on Finnair's part, so the carrier's $2,818.24 in change fees and ticketing costs was a bit of a shock.

"They said that if I didn't start the return flight in Moscow as originally planned, the entire trip had to be canceled," she said. "I couldn't just start with the planned stopover in Helsinki."

Complicating things, Spor had purchased the tickets through the online travel agency CheapTickets, a subsidiary of Orbitz. Finnair told Spor that she'd have to make all changes through CheapTickets.

CheapTickets, for its part, said it was powerless to waive any Finnair change fee or ticketing costs. It said the Spors would have to take that up with the airline.

In other words, both CheapTickets and Finnair were passing the buck.

A close reading of Finnair's customer contract suggests that the buck stops with the airline. It says that "the ticket is and remains at all times the property of the issuing carrier."

The contract makes clear that "changing the place of departure … can result in an increase in price," and no exception is made for geopolitical crises.

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