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ASK JOURNEYS: Rerouting practices cause traveller frustration

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After I did a column recently on the occasional tour-operator practice of adding an extra stop on scheduled non-stop flights to sun destinations, I received comments that perhaps I was letting these companies off the hook too easily.

Readers felt strongly that once a flight is offered as a non-stop, vacationers should not have to put up with route changes, since they made their bookings in good faith with the expectation of getting to their holiday destination in the least time and inconvenience.

When a flight is rerouted, it's frustrating from the client's perspective, particularly since the tour operator will do nothing to compensate for either the inconvenience or time lost at the destination because of the extra hour or two it takes for the interim stop.

Tour operators and airlines protect themselves in their terms of carriage agreements. The policy, with somewhat different wording, is more or less the same among tour operators throughout the airline world. Some of them use words to the effect that rerouting can be made "in case of necessity", but offer no definition of what constitutes necessity.

I'm told that when such changes are made, an automatic notification is forwarded to the client or travel agency. But there seems to be some disagreement on whether this is being executed effectively.

In fact, according to one airline I contacted, it only stipulates that it will do its best to contact and inform the traveller as soon as possible.

I know of a recent situation when a change of accommodation was communicated to the travel agency at 3 a.m., when the passenger was already en-route to the airport for a flight that was scheduled to depart at 6 a.m.

While many of these diverted stops happen because of emergency situations such as storms and equipment concerns, all too many are as a direct result of load factors controlled by the tour operator's head office. If it's felt that bookings to a specific destination for a non-stop flight are not sufficient, they will do a drop stop at a second destination for which there is greater demand.

When this is done, in most cases the tour operator will try to ensure the inconvenience is only on one leg of the journey. For example, a flight to Cancun, Mexico, that might be diverted to Jamaica on the outbound flight will do the reverse pickup on the returning itinerary.

Luckily, this does not happen often, but it's a fact of travel in just about every season. Passengers have a right to be unhappy and ask for some form of compensation. Unfortunately, the airlines, both those that controlled by tour operators as well as scheduled airlines, have the aforementioned built-in protections, which are unfair and leave a bad taste in many travellers' view.

There are also some tricky words that can create confusion and misunderstanding among travellers. As I have outlined before, there is a difference between direct and non-stop flights.

A direct flight is one where one or more other stops may take place during the journey, but that do not require passengers to change aircraft. In most cases they can stay on board. If the flight is to another country, passengers may be required to get off the plane and then re-board, adding to the frustration.

While I would be angry if my flight was rerouted -- and at the risk of being accused of being in cahoots with air carriers -- I know that if passengers from the originating destination don't fill flights and are flown as per the non-stop promise, sooner or later we will lose some destination options completely.

Every travel-tour business will quickly cut a destination if capacity is not satisfactory for the tour company to operate profitably. The reroute can help save a destination as the tour operator strategizes better ways to fill the flights in subsequent years.

Forward your travel questions to askjourneys@journeystravel.com. Ron Pradinuk is president of Journeys Travel & Leisure SuperCentre and can be heard Sundays at noon on CJOB. Previous columns and tips can be found at www.journeystravelgear.com or read Ron's travel blog at www.thattravelguy.ca.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 22, 2014 E5

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