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Suing Northwest Airlines

How one family took Northwest Airlines to small-claims court and got $3,750 in travel vouchers after being bumped from an overbooked flight.

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In March of 1999, my wife, three children, and I were scheduled for a Northwest/KLM flight between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Venice, Italy via Amsterdam. (Northwest and KLM have a "code-sharing" arrangement on certain routes, MSP-AMS among them.)

The plane's departure had been rescheduled from 9:25 p.m. to 10:50 p.m., which meant we'd miss our connection at Schiphol Airport. I'd already been in contact with Northwest's International Reservations staff, who had made arrangements for us to reach Venice by changing planes in Milan.

Overbooked and bumped

We arrived at the airport nearly 90 minutes before the rescheduled departure. (The airline's check-in guidelines specified a 60-minute deadline for international flights.) 

To our surprise, the international departures desk was already closed, possibly because Minneapolis-St. Paul airport has few scheduled flights after 10 p.m. and the international desk's normal work shift had ended. We were forced to join the domestic check-in line, where priority was being given to passengers who'd missed flights and were waiting for hotel vouchers.

Presently we were checked in by an agent who cheerfully confessed to having little experience with international flights. The check-in process took half an hour, rather than the usual three or four minutes, and the agent had to make several phone calls to override an uncooperative computer.

At long last, we were checked in and we rushed to the gate. There, a surly KLM employee told us that the overbooked flight had been closed "a long time" and that our seats had been given to other passengers. We protested that we'd been kept hostage for half an hour by an untrained agent, and that the flight had obviously closed early. "Sometimes that happens," the KLM employee said with an indifferent shrug. We were sent back to the check-in counter, ostensibly so that a manager could straighten things out.

After another wait, a Northwest manager told us that we weren't going to make the flight and that we'd been told to see him only to get us away from the gate. Eventually a pair of sympathetic female agents with international experience managed to rebook us through Newark on a 1 p.m. flight the next day. (The new itinerary required a 12-hour layover at Schiphol, which I describe in a travelogue called  A Day in Amsterdam.) 

When my wife asked about compensation, one of the agents said we were probably entitled to something and that we should write to Customer Relations after returning from our trip.

A request for compensation

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