We gave up our seat on Spirit but they gave us nothing

Spirit Airlines

Spirit Airlines (Joe Raedle / Getty Images / June 17, 2010)

Sarah Dragswiek and her family give up their airline seat in exchange for a promise of a refund and a voucher for a new ticket. But when the airline refuses to keep its word, what can they do?

Q. My husband, 2-year-old son and I recently flew from Chicago to Phoenix on Spirit Airlines. Before we took off, a flight attendant approached our seat to tell us that there was a problem with one of the seats, and that another passenger couldn't use his seat. We were offered a refund of our son's ticket and a free round-trip voucher if we would hold our son on our lap in order to free a seat for the gentleman whose seat was not usable.

We agreed to this, and the flight attendant and gate agent (who had boarded the plane to help resolve the situation) told us that we should talk with the gate agents when we landed in Phoenix to claim our refund and free voucher.

When we landed, we approached the gate agents. It was 1 a.m. and there weren't many people working. A Spirit employee advised us to call the customer service number to figure out everything about our tickets. Because it was so late and there was no one else with whom we could speak, and we were traveling with an exhausted toddler, we accepted this.

The next evening I called the customer service line and was informed by both a representative and a supervisor that there was no record of the transaction that had occurred. In fact, the supervisor chastised me for giving up our son's seat and told me that because he was over 24 months old it was against FAA regulations to hold him on our lap (which we knew, which was why we bought him a ticket in the first place), even though the flight attendants and gate agent had asked us to do so. We were eventually told to go back to the airport and try to speak with staff there to resolve this issue.

We tried speaking with Spirit on our return flight, but it was impossible to find someone who could help us. We've also tried sending emails to the airline. Nothing seems to be working. Can you persuade Spirit to keep its word? -- Sarah Dragswiek, Minneapolis

A. Your story is troubling on many levels. First, there's the problem of asking you to keep your 2-year-old on your lap. The safest place for your son is in his own seat, and preferably strapped into a car seat. Most airlines require that kids older than two have their own seats, so if the tables had been turned, which is to say you showed up for a flight without a ticket for your son, then the airline might have forced you to pay for another ticket.

Talk is cheap. In the heat of the moment as the plane is boarding, promises are made and other employees down the line don't always get the memo. So while the flight attendants were just trying to fix a problem, they ended up creating another problem by failing to give you a written assurance that you'd get a refund and a ticket voucher.

How could you have avoided this? It's not easy. You said a gate agent boarded the flight to fix the problem. That agent could have given you a flight voucher and all the paperwork necessary for a refund. If you could do an instant replay, you might have asked for some kind of assurance in writing.

Once you stepped off that plane, Spirit handled your case about the way I'd expect it. No one except the gate agent knew about the promise, so Spirit turned you down. How frustrating.

If someone ever asks you to give up your son's seat again, be sure to let that employee know he's over two and is required to have his own seat. And remember, you can always say "no" when you're asked to move. They're your seats -- you paid for them.

I contacted Spirit on your behalf. It refunded your seat and sent you the voucher it had promised.

(Christopher Elliott is the author of "How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler (and Save Time, Money and Hassle)" (National Geographic). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at chris@elliott.org. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, which he answers as quickly as possible, but because of a backlog of cases, your story may not be published for several months.)

(c)2014 CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

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