CONTACT 2: Student trip cancelation creates airline ticket nightmare

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ST. LOUIS– — When a group of St. Charles County high schoolers welcomed Irish exchange students at Lambert Airport in October 2019, they were already excited for their chance to do the same in Ireland less than six months later.

“To go see what their lifestyle was like, they were really excited,” said Julie Matthews.

Matthews’ daughter is a junior at St. Charles West. She was one of 24 area students scheduled to leave for Ireland on March 15th through the St. Charles sister cities program.

Then the pandemic hit.

“All of our kids were like, ok now what are we doing. It was chaos.” said Matthews.

The trip was canceled two days before they were supposed to leave. Julie says what followed was one frustrating phone call after next trying to find out how to get their tickets refunded.

“It’s really frustrating to not even know who to talk to about it or what loops to jump through to get to that exact person.” said Matthews.

You see, what makes this situation so complicated, is the way the tickets were purchased. The families gave their checks to Sandi Swift. She works at St. Charles West and organized the plane tickets through her travel services company. She then sent the families’ checks to Travel Planners International. It’s a host agency travel advisors and agency owners use to book flights and more. T-P-I then paid a consolidator, in this case Sky Bird Travel, for a block of seats it previously purchased at a discounted price from United and American Airlines.

“We’re not here to point fingers or place blame on anyone. We just want this resolved.” said Matthews.

And that’s where Contact 2 comes in. After more than two months of digging, we learned Sky Bird needed to request the refund from the airlines for the families to get their money back. Problem is, the group canceled the itinerary, not the airline. That complicates the refunds the group is entitled to. in fact, both the United and American flights the students were supposed to take, actually flew to Ireland. Remember, this was right at the start of the pandemic.

We spoke to both airlines. In a statement, United said: “we’ve extended ticket validity to 24 months from the date the ticket was issued.”

American said “the ticket can be used for any travel under the customer’s name until 12/31/2021.”

“Where am I going to send my 16-year-old daughter by herself?” asked Matthews.

That’s just one of the many frustrations these parents still have. The timing of this trip couldn’t have been worse. With COVID shutdowns rippling around the globe at the time, airlines were making and changing policies frequently. We’ll keep working to get them their money back. A representative for the Missouri Attorney General’s office tells us it is reviewing two complaints related to this situation. Which we’ll also follow up on.

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