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Grab Bags

Don't try to sneak home, or TWA will take your luggage hostage


Sometimes trouble sneaks up on you when you least expect it. Just ask Bill Harrington Jr. and Tamera Fox. In October, when TWA offered tempting fares to London, the unmarried St. Louis couple decided to take advantage. The glitch was that they did not have passports for themselves or their children, and there was no time to get them by regular mail. The solution? Catch a TWA flight to Chicago, where they could get expedited passports and board the first leg of a TWA Chicago-St. Louis-London flight -- all in a single day. As an added bonus, it turned out that the round trip, because it originated from Chicago, was cheaper than a St. Louis-to-London round trip. So the four of them -- two adults and two children -- got on the plane in Chicago, had a great week in London and, on their return ... well, that's when the trouble began.

Lambert International is the port of arrival for TWA Flight 721, Gatwick-to-St. Louis. Once the plane arrives at the terminal, all passengers and their bags come off the plane and pass through U.S. Customs. Luggage for passengers with connecting flights is transferred to other planes. Passengers who end their travel in St. Louis collect their bags and head home. That's what Harrington and Fox thought they were doing. Bags in hand, they were producing claim tickets and identification when a TWA employee told them they had to continue to Chicago because that was the destination for which they were ticketed.

"We were astounded," says Harrington, a creative director with a local marketing firm. "We said, "We're not going to Chicago, because we're already home.'" After a bit of haggling, says Harrington, "this fellow says, maybe you're not going to Chicago, but according to rules that apply to baggage on international flights, your luggage is going to Chicago. They took our bags and wouldn't give them back. We watched them being loaded back on the plane."

The luggage went on to Chicago without them -- orphaned, as it were. The next day Harrington called TWA and explained the situation, and the airline sent the luggage back to St. Louis. But when he went to pick it up at Lambert, a supervisor appeared and said TWA was holding the luggage until the company received $600. The justification? When the travelers chose not to continue to Chicago, contends TWA, they were changing the final destination. In that event, the rules of the fare require a $150 change fee per ticket. When the bumfuzzled Harrington aggressively pressed his case, he says, the airline called airport police, and he was "escorted" off the premises.

Harrington is particularly annoyed with TWA because when he purchased the inexpensive tickets, he claims he thought he was buying nonstop Chicago-to-London service. Finding out that the flight stopped in his hometown seemed like a lucky bonus. "I didn't know the flight came through St. Louis until I got the ticket," he says. "When I got the ticket, I said, "This is crazy, but it works. We'll just deplane in St. Louis.'"

What Harrington and Fox did, whether deliberately or incidentally, has a name among airline officials. "It's called "hidden city,'" says Tony Molinaro, Federal Aviation Administration spokesperson in Chicago. "People do that to get a cheaper fare." Indeed, the couple saved a bundle by purchasing the round trip out of Chicago. Says Harrington, "When I was arguing with the baggage lady, she tells me that if I had bought the ticket that way, with St. Louis as the final destination, it would have been an extra $270 apiece."

Though it may seem odd that a ticket would cost less for a flight originating farther from its destination, Donald Broughton, transportation analyst for A.G. Edwards, says there's a reason: "By pricing it that way -- a cheaper fare from Chicago with a stopover in St. Louis -- TWA is feeding additional volume through their hub, and in that market (Chicago) they're competing directly with United and American. Does it sound ludicrous? Yes, and every airline does it. For every airline there's a financial motivation to feed volume through their hubs."

Broughton isn't exactly sympathetic to Harrington and Fox's plight. "Quite frankly, the individuals in this case sound as though they thought they had found a loophole in the system," he says. "They ran the risk, got caught scamming, and now they're complaining that this big, bad company won't give them their bags back. Cry me a river. Sounds to me like they still came out ahead."

When the RFT asked the airline why it was holding Harrington and Fox's luggage, TWA spokeswoman Julia Bishop described the couple as would-be cheaters who owe the airline money. "Mr. Harrington and his family tried to cheat TWA out of ticket revenue by buying a ticket for one itinerary and flying another. He got caught. TWA will hold his baggage until he pays the standard $150 change fee."

Bishop adds, "TWA has graciously not tried to charge him the difference in the ticket price that he also owes," suggesting in a coy public-relations kind of way that the offended party should be grateful they didn't get rapped even harder. Harrington, who says he flies TWA regularly and likes the airline overall, contends that they have no right to continue to hold his and his girlfriend's personal property. "They say, "We've checked this out with our legal counsel, and we feel we're correct on this.' I say, "Fine. If you're that convinced you're right, then give us our bags back. You know where I live -- take me to court."

Actually, it may be the other way around. Having gotten nowhere with formal protests, Harrington has consulted an attorney.

"I told him to file in small-claims court," says Harrington's pal and attorney, Michael "Pete" Bastian. "And the irony is, here's an airline that's struggling and they don't understand when they're getting a break. When the four of them got off in St. Louis, that opened up seats between here and Chicago. It was potential revenue for TWA. Instead of persecuting their passengers, they might've resold those seats. But they're pigheaded, and that's why their stock trades at $3 and they've been in bankruptcy twice."

Two months after the flight, both sides still have their heels dug in. Harrington and Fox refuse to pay the change fee, and TWA refuses to cut them any slack. And St. Louisans still pay premium airfares to their hometown airline.

At least Harrington's learned one big lesson from the experience.

"Next time," says Harrington, "we'll insist on carry-on luggage."

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