Opinion: Poor services of Expedia and airlines make travelers suffer, is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

(Editor’s Note: The opinion of the writer does not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or position of the TCC Connection and its staff. The facts shared and the comments expressed represent the experience and research of the writer.)

     I was a faithful customer of Expedia, online travel agency (OTA), for a about a decade. Despite that, dealing with Expedia during and after my flight cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic became a nightmare for me.

     I had purchased an international round-trip airplane ticket from Tulsa, Okla., to Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, on www.expedia.com in the beginning of January 2020. The trip was supposed to take place from May 30 to June 28, 2020.  The flights from Tulsa to Chicago and from Houston to Tulsa were assigned to United Airlines, and other connecting flights were conducted by Turkish Airlines in the itinerary. My bank statement showed that $1,406.25 was paid to Turkish Airlines, and an $8.49 fee went to Expedia.

     In March 2020, when it became unsafe to travel because of COVID-19, I decided to cancel the trip. I dialed up the Expedia’s toll-free phone number listed on its website several times, but the answering machine kept saying to call later. I submitted cancellation forms and sent an email requesting a refund to the company’s customer service. Expedia was silent. I wondered what was going on; did the company completely shut down its operations due to the quarantine?

     Then, I decided to mail a letter. But Expedia’s website did not have a mailing address listed on it. I googled and found an address of Expedia Group and assumed that it belonged to www.expedia.com.

     Weeks passed by, and no response from Expedia was received. I filed a consumer complaint with Mike Hunter, Oklahoma Attorney General, on April 9, 2020, asking for help to cancel my international airplane ticket and to get a refund from Expedia.

     Finally, with the assistance of the Attorney General’s office, Expedia canceled my trip on April 16, 2020 and issued a credit for $1,406.25 until February 2021 with Turkish Airlines. The company stated that my ticket was not refundable.

    It took a few minutes for Expedia’s website to take my payment, but it took weeks to get the trip canceled! That is a terrible service. But the rest of the story is to come.

     As the COVID-19 pandemic continued to rage and take the lives of thousands of people around the world daily, I could not plan any international trips. Also, there were no airplane tickets to Kazakhstan listed on Expedia’s website until the end of 2020. Because of that, I made another attempt and asked Expedia for a refund in the fall of 2020.

     Again, no response to my request. The company also ignored the Oklahoma Attorney General’s effort to help me. My case was transferred to the Attorney General in the State of Washington who could reach Expedia on my behalf. Of course, I did not get a refund. The company only extended the credit until the end of 2021.

     Recently, my father had a stroke and became critically ill in Kazakhstan. I desperately wanted to go and see him now. I searched Expedia’s and Turskish Airlines’ websites and could see tickets to Kazakhstan for $2,300 for July, August, and September. July 9, 2021, I called Expedia and claimed my credit toward a new ticket.

    I had to wait on the phone a half hour with the first agent, and then, another hour with the second agent because the customer service personnel were located in India. My telephone call was interrupted once, and the search had to start over to contact a customer service representative with Expedia.

     After the time consuming agony by phone, an agent named Amir, offered a $3,500 round trip ticket with the credit to me. I asked why I was not allowed to purchase cheaper tickets listed on Expedia’s and Turkish Airlines’ websites. Amir replied that it was because those itineraries included flights from not just Turkish Airlines, but also from United Airlines. It did not make a sense to me. It was okay to purchase a ticket with multiple airlines last year, but it is not permitted to do it with the existing credit now. The whole situation looks to me as a dishonest business practice when a company’s agent tried to sell a more expensive ticket taking advantage of my emergency situation. Also, Amir said that it was Turkish Airlines’ policy, and he could not offer me the cheaper ticket.

     Then I tried to reach Turkish Airlines. I found its address, phone and an email address in New York on the Internet. Calling Turkish Airlines did no good. I tried multiple times, different ways, and could not talk to anybody or leave a message. After submitting emails and online claims, I received an automated message that I had to talk to my travel agent or Expedia.

     I also tried to communicate with Expedia and Turkish Airlines through chats on their websites. The chats kept bombarding me with standard answers which did not help to solve the problem. Obviously, the chats are robots. I doubt they help anybody very much.

     After all, I feel exhausted with both companies, and I decided to write this article.

     I am not the only passenger who is unhappy with Expedia and airlines. In the spring of 2020, the U.S. Department of Transportation had received more than 25,000 air travel service complaints, and many of them about refunds, according to WCVB Channel 5 (ABC) in Boston at www.wcvb.com.

     Some travelers filed lawsuits against Expedia. For example, Daniel Mahoney from California, who purchased a ticket from Expedia in December 2019 for travel to Italy in July 2020 on TAP Air Portugal, filed a class action complaint at the Superior Court for the State of Washington and in King County. In May 2020, Expedia canceled Mahoney’s flight and refused to refund the ticket.

     The complaint described how bad Expedia’s customer service was. Mahoney talked to four Expedia agents for hours at different times; he experienced disconnection of the calls, as I did. Mahoney underlined that the chat on Expedia’s website also was useless; agents disconnected the chats when he claimed his legal right for a refund.

     The class action complaint informed that the U.S. Department of Transportation to issue Enforcement Notice on April 3, 2020, declaring if any airline cancels a flight, then passengers are entitled to receive a full refund. But Expedia was ignoring the government’s decision in the case with Mahoney.

     It seems that Expedia became a monopoly, and it dictates rules for the traveling business in the United States. According to the complaint, Expedia is the largest OTA in the United States with approximately 70 percent of the OTA market. It operates Expedia.com, Orbitz, Hotels.com, Trivago, CheapTickets, Hotwire, HomeAway, and Travelocity.

     I think the American government needs to take more radical steps and reform the flight and hotel booking system in the country. The federal government should design a centralized or unified website where airlines, hotels, etc. could connect to travelers directly, without mediators or a third party.

     The U.S. Congress should issue a law which protects the rights of consumers against the arbitrariness of big corporations ruling the airline and hotel booking businesses. Passengers should have a right for automatic and fast refund in case of cancellation due to COVID-19 pandemic. It should not matter if a customer had to cancel him/herself, or an airline or a hotel cancels a booking.

     In addition, airlines, hotels, and OTAs should be obligated to provide better, non-robotic, customer service, and their websites must have information with the corporate addresses, phones and emails where passengers can submit a customer inquiry or file a complaint. An open dialogue between airlines, hotels, OTAs, and passengers is highly needed in the pandemic chaos and afterwards.

     In the past, multiple American airlines have received governmental bailout money (for instance, $25 billion from the Trump administration), but it did not improve their customer service and did not help grow their businesses. The federal government should investigate the thousands of passengers’ complaints and send help of expertise to the airlines. The airlines and OTAs must obtain better training in the areas of customer service and business development.

     One of the ways to grow airline business could be, for example, creating flights to countries of the former Soviet Union. I flew to Kazakhstan with Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, KLM, and Aeroflot. I never flew with an American airline there because those flights do not exist.

Some Americans dream about traveling to outer space as tourists. But let us clean up the jungle of the air travel transportation service in the U.S. first. Then we will be better ready for a vacation to the moon.