Hawaiian Airlines and CheapFlightsFares/Riya Travel: predatory partners

This January, I was asked by a client to fly out to NYC for a meeting. They suggested that I book first class from Kahului, a suggestion I was more than happy to consider. It was pretty last minute, the client request coming on a Monday and my departure being that Saturday, so I figured I should move fast to ensure I’d get seats. But I was also at the beach, so it looked like I’d need to book my flights using Hawaiian Airlines’ app.

Right off, I need to say that I think the Hawaiian Airlines iPhone app is pretty bad. I’ve been a road warrior for the last several years, and watched as the capabilities of apps for carriers like Alaska Airlines and Delta Airlines grew better and better. Hawaiian is, in my opinion, still functioning at a technology level the other airlines were at years ago.

My client suggested specific flights, and who was I to argue, so I wanted to search by flight number. Nope. The flight I was most concerned about was the direct from Honolulu to JFK, but that was the second outgoing leg. On the Hawaiian app, I couldn’t view downstream flights. Giving up, I decided I’d just call Hawaiian and do this the old-fashioned way. I looked up their number on my browser and gave them a call. 

That was my first mistake.

The agent was difficult to understand, something I’ve become more or less accustomed to in these days of call center outsourcing. But he was also inept, botched my request a number of times, gave me incorrect information and then nearly booked my return for April even though I was clear I was coming back in a few days. At the end of all this, I was surprised to hear him ask:  

“I’d like to know why you’re booking with Hawaiian because you could save a lot of money booking with Alaska.”

Er, wha? Warning bells started clanging, and so I asked “aren’t you Hawaiian Airlines?” Nope. Turns out he’s with CheapFlightsFares (CFF), a discount aggregator. This was too weird, so I told him to cancel the entire transaction, made him repeat that cancellation back to me (you really need to do that), and hung up.

Less than 90 seconds later, my phone rang. A woman identifying herself as “Miranda” told me she was a customer service manager (she implied she was with Hawaiian Airlines, but that turns out not to be true), that she’d been monitoring the call, and wanted to know why I canceled the transaction. Now, at this point part of my brain was saying “If she really was monitoring the call, she clearly knows how badly things went.” She informed me that, when Hawaiian Airlines’ phones are really busy, they automatically transfer calls to CFF so that their customers don’t have to wait a long time to speak to someone. I was still skeptical, but she was able to convince me that she, handling this personally, could get everything straightened out.

That was my second mistake.

Upon giving Miranda my Amex number for the purchase, she informed me that “because of all the fraud going on”, I would need to receive and accept a DocuSign transaction. I’ve used DocuSign before. It’s cool, but usually it’s for things like buying a house. When the DocuSign email came through from CFF, I reviewed the document and saw the price: $4,964. Whoa. But I had expected the first class fare to be high, and hadn’t been able to view those flights on the Hawaiian app for comparison. I processed the request, and Miranda told me I’d get my confirmation number the next day, which was also very weird. But we ended the call and I returned my attention to jumping in the ocean.

The next morning, I looked at my Amex account online. Three charges had come in: one for $4,054 from Hawaiian Airlines. Another for $1 from “TRAVEL AGENCY SERVICES” in Cleveland (Note: when the transaction went from Pending to Processed, the billing entity magically changed to “RIYA TRAVEL & TOURS IRVING TX”. And a third charge for $914 from the same Cleveland outfit, which also changed to Riya Travel. Hmm. I logged onto the Hawaiian Airlines site, and searched for the same flights I’d booked – at least their web site provided sufficient capability to do this. It turns out the fare is, in fact, $4,054. So it looks like CFF booked the flight for me and then tacked on $915 in travel agency fees. Almost a thousand dollars for…what? I’m not as a rule against handling charges, but that is ridiculous.

I take this stuff seriously, and I don’t just roll over. I called Hawaiian Airlines, who basically told me “you booked this with an outside party, sorry can’t help.” Let’s be clear here:

  1. I was connected to CFF by calling the Hawaiian Airlines customer service number listed on the Hawaiian Airlines web site.
  2. The handoff from the Hawaiian Airlines number to a 3rd party was done without any indication that I was no longer actually speaking to Hawaiian Airlines.
  3. The person who answered the phone never at any time identified themselves as a 3rd party representative. Only after I confronted the guy did he admit to the fact.

At this point, as far as I’m concerned, Hawaiian Airlines should demonstrate some integrity if not good management and take responsibility for the system they put in place. When you shovel your customers over to a 3rd party in a way that leads them to believe they are still doing business directly with you, anything that occurs after that is on your plate. Especially when that 3rd party is a predatory loan shark of a business that gouges customers with exorbitant, bogus fees in the name of “service”.

Next steps: I went back to my Amex account and marked the agency charges to be monitored for a potential dispute. Then I sent an email to CFF calling out their practices (I used the word “despicable” among others). Finally, I composed, printed and mailed a formal complaint to Hawaiian Airlines’ Consumer Affairs department.

On Wednesday evening I received a call, the a number from Ontario. It’s Chris from CFF, the guy who sent me the DocuSign email. He was a bit upset that I’d started dispute proceedings with Amex. Then he says:

“The $914 is a Hawaiian Airlines charge, not ours.”

I call bullshit and tell him “Well, since I’ve filed a formal complaint with Hawaiian Airlines, they should be able to tell me that themselves.”

Chris gets really flustered and tells me he’s getting his manager. Sure.

Roger, “The Manager”, comes on the line and tries to reason with me:

“Those are Hawaiian Airlines charges.”

“That’s not what the charges on my Amex account look like. I’ll take this up with Hawaiian and see what they say.”

“But sir, first class is expensive – that’s just how much it costs.”

“Well, then why isn’t that the price listed on the Hawaiian Airlines web site?”

“There are always taxes and fees.”

“18% fees? Sorry, I’m not buying it. We’ll see what Hawaiian Airlines says.”

“You contacted Hawaiian Airlines?! What did they say?”

“Nothing yet – but if your claim is correct, that these extra charges are theirs, this whole issue will just go away. If it turns out the extra charges aren’t theirs, I suspect they’re going to want to have a chat with you.”

Roger tells me he’s going to speak to “their accounting department”, which appears to be in the office and on duty at 10pm Ontario time. He gets back after a few minutes and says:

“We’re going to refund the $914 charge. You need to drop the dispute immediately.”

“Thanks, but I’ll drop the dispute when I see the credit show up on my Amex.”

“No no, sir, you need to stop that process right now!”

“Well, Roger, that isn’t going to happen. If I see the credit on my Amex, I will then tell Amex to drop the dispute. Until then I’m going to leave the dispute ticket open. If I don’t see the refund by tomorrow, I’ll process the dispute with Amex and then it’s your problem.”

Shortly after my call with CFF, I received an email from Hawaiian Airlines, effectively calling bullshit on CheapFlightsFares’, or Riya Travel’s, claim that the extra charges were actually Hawaiian Airlines’ requirement. Unfortunately, Hawaiian Airlines also effectively washed their hands of the matter:

“We apologize for the inconvenience.

However, we need to refer you Cheap Flights where you booked your reservation. As per checking your ticket, it only shows $4,054.00 value.

Please do not hesitate to contact us again for any other concerns.”

I particularly like the part “where you booked your reservation”, as in “sorry but you’re the idiot that didn’t book directly with us”. Irony appears to be alive and well at Hawaiian Airlines.

As of this update, CFF/Riya has told me it will take at least 5-6 weeks to process a refund for the charge. I’ve also filed a dispute with Amex, who is looking into it. Amazingly, my letter to Hawaiian Airlines resulted in a canned customer satisfaction survey. You can guess the score they got.

CFF appears to process charges under at least one alias “Travel Agency Services” in Cleveland, which also appears to be Riya Travel in Irving, TX, and their phone calls come from Ontario. I suspect they’re actually part of the global Riya conglomerate, but that’s anybody’s guess. Regardless of whether I get a refund, I think Hawaiian Airlines acted really badly here in a number of ways:

  • They handed off their customer to a 3rd party without telling them about it.
  • They engaged the services of an agency that is clearly shady at best.
  • They shunned their customer rather than taking responsibility for an issue they created.

And if these exorbitant surcharges are common, and people became aware of how they’d been ripped off, I can imagine Hawaiian Airlines and CheapFlightsFares/Riya Travel getting sued. At the very least, Hawaiian Airlines has violated my trust, and I can’t say if I will ever fly with that airline again. Sadly, my experience seems similar to other things I’ve heard and read about Hawaiian Airlines: their service while you’re in the air is great, but the way the treat their customers on the ground is terrible. As of this writing, I haven’t seen any refund from CheapFlightsFares or Riya Travel. Amex and I will be speaking about this tomorrow.

Hawaiian Airlines, you can do better. You really can. And in any case, thankfully you’re not the only carrier I can fly with.

Update: Return Flight Troubles

Just to add insult to injury, Hawaiian Airlines’ incompetence didn’t end with the above comedy. On checking in for my return flight, I was surprised that my mobile boarding passes were missing the TSA Pre logo. I’ve been a member of PreCheck, or more precisely GlobalEntry, since the very first days the program was running, and I actually have a pretty solid understanding of how that system is supposed to work. Hawaiian agents at the airport didn’t have any interest in the missing endorsement, and I nearly missed my flight because of being stuck in the standard security line. On contacting Hawaiian Airlines’ Consumer Relations (that phrase now just makes me chuckle sadly), their response was that I didn’t seem to understand that my Trusted Traveler number was not a Hawaiian number, and that I must have made a mistake somewhere. Let’s look at the facts:

  1. I booked a single itinerary for round-trip flights from Kahului to JFK. Four flights.
  2. On booking the itinerary, the flights did not appear on my “My Flights” page on the Hawaiian Airlines site even though the flights had been booked using my name and Hawaiian Airlines frequent flyer number. I had to manually add the flights.
  3. Even after adding the flights to “My Trips” in my Hawaiian Airlines account, the corresponding “My Flights” page in their mobile app never showed those flights. Nor was I able to manually add the flights to the mobile page — I’m not even sure adding flights to the mobile page even works at all.
  4. Using the “Check In” button on the mobile app for the outbound flights, my mobile passes had PreCheck endorsements. Using the same button on the same app for return flights on the same itinerary, the endorsements were omitted. During the check in flow, the Hawaiian mobile app even displayed my Trusted Traveler number correctly. Their system is clearly behaving inconsistently.
  5. Hawaiian Airlines’ Customer Service group made it clear they had no interest whatsoever in actually trying to find and fix any problems on their end.

Resolution

As it turns out, Riya Travel doesn’t appear to like being called by American Express. Within 48 hours of American Express contacting them with a “please explain this charge” request, they resolved the dispute with Amex and credited back their sleazy service charge. This sort of support is exactly what I should have seen from Hawaiian Airlines, since Riya was at the time masquerading as Hawaiian Airlines, with Hawaiian’s blessing, when this whole thing happened. The reality is that Hawaiian Airlines couldn’t have cared less about it.

So, in a nutshell:

  1. Hawaiian Airlines’ systems and customer support are so bad (not just inept, but actually negligent and even offensively disinterested) they don’t deserve anyone’s business. Yes, their in-flight experience is lovely and their flight crews are great – but if you have any problems with your booking, you are on your own.
  2. Riya Travel is an opportunistic snake pit of an agency, and you should check your wallet any time you even come close to doing business with them.
  3. American Express is, put simply, awesome.

Geiger Trumps GlobalEntry

photo by pennuja (http://www.flickr.com/photos/pennuja/)
photo by pennuja (http://www.flickr.com/photos/pennuja/)

Last October, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer [Prostate Cancer: diagnosis]. After considering all the options, I elected to go through a procedure called Brachytherapy. This involves volumetric measurement of one’s prostate, and the subsequent insertion of around 100 rice-grain-sized “seeds” made of titanium and filled with Iodine 125, a radioactive isotope. The seeds are permanent, the idea being a long-term, highly-localized dose of radiation to kill off the cancer. The half-life of I125 is about six months. t the end of the procedure, I was issued a wallet card identifying me, the procedure and the isotope: the seeds can be detectable when crossing international boundaries.

On a recent flight to Mumbai, there were TSA agents in the jetway at Seatac, checking passports. As I approached one of them, a little box on his belt began to buzz. He actually looked a bit scared for a moment, like “uh oh, this is the big one” and asked “is there anything you want to tell me?” Ah. I showed him my “I’m radioactive – but it’s okay” card and he waived me on. No big deal.

I travel quite a bit, much of it internationally, and for reasons unexplained I tend to get pulled into secondary screening every time I enter back into the U.S. I decided to go through the effort to get a GlobalEntry ID in the hopes it would streamline my travel experience. On my return from Mumbai, Seatac Immigration was jam-packed, so I was glad to be able to walk past the crowds to a bank of 4 GlobalEntry kiosks, nobody using any of them. I placed my hand in the scanner, posed for a photo, tapped a few things on the touch screen and was on my merry in about 30 seconds. Awesome.

I thought I was home free – until, as I handed my Customs Declaration to the CBP officer, one of those same little boxes buzzed. My radiation card didn’t much impress the officer – other officers separated me from my luggage and led me to a waiting area where they brought out a shoebox-sided device with a handle on the top that started ticking when it got near me. The agent explained “this is a very expensive instrument that looks for radiation.” I said “um, yeah, it’s a Geiger counter.” He was surprised and responded “oh, you must be a scientist.” Said Geiger counter recorded my pattern but couldn’t match it against some database of “okay” forms, and so the sample had to be emailed to “a scientist on the Internet” (FEMA?) for verification. I ended up sitting for 30 minutes before I was cleared.

I’d like to think that in the age where we have TSA, CPB, PreCheck, GlobalEntry and the concept of a trusted traveler, the systems might somehow be connected in a productive way. Once I’d been identified with a specific isotope, and determined to have a proper explanation, it would be great to have that included as part of my trusted traveler profile. I posed that as a suggestion on the CPB website and received a call from a rather surly CPB agent who basically said “can’t do it, not now, not never. Tough luck.”

Ah, the pairing of government with technology…

 

Bangalore impressions

I’ve tavelled to Bangalore a number of times over the last several months. Each time I go, I learn a little bit more, notice some of the more subtle things that escaped me on prior visits, discover more favorite places, people and things. Each time I go, I find I’m able to achieve just a little bit more grace in the way I move through this culture. A few of the impressions that’ve stuck in my mind…

on the road

Driving in India is a much higher-awareness endeavor than in the US. Lane lines seem optional, and one wonders why they bother – even veering into oncoming traffic is considered acceptable – yet you’ll find far fewer accidents than over a similar period here. I’ve heard americans claim they’d be able to drive easily in Bangalore with a little practice, but I have to call bullshit on it.

Conducting this eloquent chaos is the language of horns. Unlike lane lines, horns are effectively required – you’ll even find signs on rear  bumpersthat say – “OK sound horn”. And they mean it. And you’d better learn that language if you plan to drive there. A short toot that may say “Hi, I’m coming up on you”. A longer toot or quick stutter that says “Hey! I’m right next to you!”. A long blast that might mean “Dammit, stop crowding me!”

And yet anger, much less road rage, seems almost unheard of on those roads. Drivers appear cheerfully engaged in a way that reminds me of the “Whos” from Dr. Seuss.

But not all is passive on indian roads: intersections in particular seem ruled, if not by outright aggression, then by a resolute determination, a grim steadfastness in the sense of “I’m proceeding through this intersection, now, – thank you very much.” The faint of heart will sit, cowed, at such a junction for the entire day and get nowhere – it would take literally years for me to feel trained enough to be proficient in this flow.

Which leaves me the options of taxis or feet – and be warned, as a pedestrian here you are at the bottom of the food chain!

motorbikes

Motorbikes rule in Bangalore. I’ve seen vast parking lots of nothing but motorbikes. I’ve watched a single motorbike with the man driving, his wife riding sidesaddle on the back, a child between them, another child riding in front of the man, and still another child lying on the fuel tank. And the women never fall off. Imagine riding sideways on the back of a motorbike as it weaves through traffic, around potholes and over speedbumps. Go ahead – try.

color

With most species, it is the males that display color while the females tend toward a more subdued palette. Indeed, humans seem like a rare exception. And in India that difference is accentuated – while the men generally wear grays, tans and perhaps blues, the women are strikingly, beautifully colorful, wearing traditional clothing even when reporting to work in a technology park. It’s one of those cultural juxtapositions, a head-on collision between east and west, between historical and modern, that makes this place so intriguing.

tea time

In the tech park where I work when in Bangalore, large afternoon meetings are frequently visited by “chai wallas”, who bring trays full of piping hot chai and pass it out to everyone, an incredibly civilized way to break up the afternoon. In fact, I learned on my second trip that one could dial an internal number and have a cup of chai delivered to my desk, something I’ve tried unsuccessfully to get adopted back in Seattle.

vestigial limbs

Some traditions die hard. The caste system, for all the claims of reform, seems to have survived even if in some very subtle ways. It can be a look or a tone, or a reflexive cringe, or the use of the term “sah”. I’ve watched management dismiss food servers with an imperious twitch of their head, and those servers literally back away in a crouch. Courtesies we take for granted might be met with amazement or awkwardness.

food

In many cultures, food preparation can be pretty involved. In India, food consumption can be challenging. Indian cuisine is a rich landscape where just about every dish, it seems, has its own particular method for getting the food from the plate to your mouth. Bread (nan, roti), crepes (dosas), and at least a dozen or more types I couldn’t remember are all used differently. Some sauces are mixed on the plate when properly used. Some forms of bread are dipped but others are rolled up. And I am convinced that native indians have evolved special musculature that allows them to grab a piece of nan and pull off a properly-sized chunk of it, one-handed. It’s amazing to watch, like someone who’s able to roll a coin across their knuckles, a natural move that actually takes considerable coordination and strength.

And, traditionally,  it’s the right hand that is used. Historically, the left hand is considered unclean because it’s used for, well, things besides eating. Which is tough when you’re a southpaw, as am I. Using a fork in my right hand is a challenge, chopsticks are downright amusing or even dangerous. Indian friends tell me that enough western lefties have invaded India that they’re accustomed to it, but I’ve received some very surprised, even horrified looks.

Usually, then, I’ll simply try to eat for a while with my right hand. Always leave ’em laughing…

What’s in a name?

I travel a lot – pretty much every week, domestically and internationally. For the most part, things go reasonably smoothly.
That changed recently.

My company uses Egencia, the corporate arm of Expedia, for travel arrangements. Last fall, Egencia started requesting “Secure Flight Info” to comply with TSA regulations. Stuff like middle name, passport number, etc. I entered the data, and was subsequently surprised/dismayed to find everything I booked through Egencia coming up with my name being “Firstmiddle Last” rather than “First Middle Last”. Airlines in particular tend to find this indigestible.

And data tends to propagate, for better or worse. I had my passport pulled transiting through Dubai so that they could “manually update my passport information.” At that point, my official name as far as UAE was concerned was “Firstmiddle Last”.

Having had enough, I found a route to make Egencia aware of their blunder (a nice word for a company that, supposedly, is run by experts in the travel industry). Miraculously, the blunder appears to have been corrected. All is well…

Not so fast.

Transiting through Dubai again, my passport was pulled, again, for “security reasons”. My corrected (but incorrect) information in their system did not match the now-correct information on my travel documents (which now matched the information in my actual passport). Sigh.

And I have found that name error installed into my accounts at several travel sites. Like Virgin America, for example, where I found my name in my account had been helpfully changed to “Firstmiddle Last”. I found I was able to correct that info on their site. Cool.

Big mistake.

This week, on a short hop to the bay area on Virgin, I found myself staring at a page on their site that said “Online Check In is Available” and, less than an inch away, “we are unable to allow you to check in online.” A call to their customer service number connected me with someone who was so focused on following their script that, after 15 argumentative minutes, they were telling me there was no solution even though they had never even asked me for a confirmation number, name or flight. A second call to customer service connected me with the same person (figure the odds there). A third call finally got me to someone who was actually interested in finding out what was wrong. Except that they weren’t allowed to tell me because it had to do with “security issues.” First it was “sir, our site cannot check you in. That’s all I can tell you.” Finally, after a game of 20 questions, it appears it’s not the site, it’s my reservation. The (incorrect) name did not match the (correct) account record. Checking in at the Virgin counter, I was advised that I should go to the TSA site and follow their process for a scary thing called “redress”. Having done that, I’m told they will review my documents within 30 days. I wait with anticipation.

Now, I’ve personally experienced the capriciousness of TSA, watching some agents inflict their personal opinions on passengers even when those opinions contradict TSA policy: I’ve witnessed surprisingly long lectures about packing, and been told my TSA-approved laptop case was “bad to use” because it “endangered the laptop while on the scanner belt.” (Tom Binh take note).  But people do that: have opinions. When a travel company like Egencia adds features or changes account behavior around TSA information, I expect them to do it correctly the first time. So that I don’t have to waste my time.