A Vancouver couple who booked flights through a discount online travel site had to pay $2,300 extra to get home from vacation, because some of their "confirmed" tickets had actually not been issued.
"We had email confirmations," Roger Cottrill said. "As far as we were concerned, we were good to go."
Weeks before the scheduled flights, records show the travel site FlightNetwork.com was informed by the airline that some discount seats it booked for the couple weren't available. But nobody told Cottrill and his partner, Betty Calam, until they were almost stranded mid-trip.
"It was outrageous," Cottrill said.
Online travel: Have you had any problems when booking online?
"FlightNetwork.com advises all passengers to confirm their departure times 72 hours before any flight," wrote FlightNetwork.com CEO Naman Budhdeo, in a statement to CBC News.
The couple booked flights to Portugal in early December, through the Ontario-based website, which advertises it is the second most-visited online travel site in Canada. They immediately received two emails, one from FlightNetwork.com and the other from Air Canada, stating, "This is your official itinerary ... your booking is confirmed."
They were planning to spend New Year's with Calam's adult son, whom the couple had not seen in several months. Calam said she was leery about booking online, because she had never done it before.
"I can tell you, I would not be doing that again," she said. "If we had flown business class — paying it all right up front — it would have been cheaper."
No record of booking
The couple didn't know there was a problem until after they left Vancouver. After a stopover in London, they went to check in for their connecting flight to Lisbon, Portugal, but Air Canada's Portuguese partner airline, TAP Portugal Airlines, told them it had no record of their booking.
"We showed our printed confirmation — and we were told that we were not on their screen," Cottrill said.
"I showed the woman a photo and I said, 'See, this is my son. If you don't get us on this flight, we are going to miss our connection and I am not going to see him for New Year's."
Cottrill said the TAP agent told them to take their problem up with Air Canada, which was in another terminal at the sprawling Heathrow Airport.
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"I don't think I've ever run harder and faster in my entire life," said Calam.
Because they had a printed confirmation, Air Canada issued them new tickets and they made the flight.
"As the doors were physically closing on the aircraft, we ran on," said Cottrill.
On their way back to Canada, however, they said their experience with flights was even worse. As a precaution, they went to the Lisbon airport the day before their scheduled return flight. Again, TAP told them it had no record of their booking.
Cottrill said they were also told the flight they thought they were scheduled to be on was full. In order to make their connection home, they said they were given no choice but to buy two first-class tickets on TAP at a cost of $2,300.
"We bought our tickets, got on board, and I went back into economy just to see if the flight was actually full. There were no less than 10 empty seats in economy," said Cottrill.
"That was one expensive bottle of wine [in first class]," said Calam.
Airline points to travel site
In London, Air Canada told Cottrill how to file a complaint, which he did. He said he was surprised when the airline later got back to him, suggesting the root of the problem was with FlightNetwork.com.
"My suggestion is that you proceed to followup with Flight Network as to why you were not notified of this cancellation," wrote an Air Canada customer relations representative.
Internal airline computer records show the day after the couple booked their travel — Dec. 3 — TAP sent a message to the online agency, saying seats were not available at the discount price the couple had paid.
"Since they sold me the tickets, ultimately it's [Flight Network's] responsibility to look after us," said Cottrill.
Cottrill said he called FlightNetwork.com and was told his complaint was with TAP.
'Nobody wanted to take responsibility.' — B.C. traveller Roger Cottrill
"Flight Network was saying, 'Not our problem,'" said Cottrill. "It's like pinning the tail on the donkey, and the donkey keeps moving. Nobody wanted to take responsibility."
As a result of CBC News inquiries, FlightNetwork.com said it has now refunded Cottrill and Calam the full cost of the first-class tickets they had to purchase to get home.
"We appreciate the opportunity to investigate and rectify this situation," wrote CEO Budhdeo.
"In the interests of customer service, we are happy to forward Roger and Betty a full refund on their additional flight cost as we continue to investigate and work with Air Canada and TAP for a resolution."
The Consumers' Association of Canada said it received 500 complaints last year about online travel sites.
President Bruce Cran said about half of the consumers said they didn't get their tickets as advertised while the other half complained flight prices increased before they even had time to book online.
"The [complainants] involved say they didn't get much in consumer service," said Cran.
Complaints about price switching
Cran said he's heard of cases where customers received an email flight confirmation, then got a call back from the online marketer, saying the discount prices quoted were no longer available and they would have to pay more.
"It seems price-switching is fairly common," Cran said.
The Travel Industry Council of Ontario said consumers must be told of flight changes immediately. The council oversees travel retailers and wholesalers registered in Ontario.
"From time to time — online — you will have situations where perhaps something is booked and then for some reason it can't be provided," said council spokesperson Dorian Werda.
"There is a section in the regulations in Ontario that says if there is a change … that would have altered the consumer's decision to purchase, the agency must advise the consumer."
Some online retailers like FlightNetwork.com are not members of the International Air Transport Association, so they can't actually issue tickets. The IATA says that means they don't have access to the most up-to-date prices.
"A non-accredited, online agency can subscribe to a GDS (Global Distribution System) from which they may view flight availability, book reservations and print an itinerary — but they cannot issue an electronic ticket," said Steven Lott of IATA.
"The accredited agent can issue tickets immediately at the best available fares on behalf of all airlines."
Rules cover who can issue tickets
FlightNetwork.com confirmed it has another company, Huntingon Travel, which is IATA-accredited and actually does its ticketing.
"Consumers book on Flight Network website and the tickets are issued by Huntington Travel," said FlightNetwork.com's general manager Suri Pillai. "Flight Network and Huntington Travel are the same company."
In Cottrill and Calam's case, records show it was Huntington Travel that was informed by TAP that the tickets purchased were not available, the day after the booking was confirmed by FlightNetwork.com.
"There was no communication with us," said Cottrill.
After booking with an online travel site, Cran's advice is to double-check a flight is booked with the airline. He said consumers should also compare prices on the airline's own sites.
FlightNetwork.com advertises a "lowest fare guarantee," so CBC News tried booking a return trip from Vancouver to Lisbon on June 16.
FlightNetwork.com was advertising the flights for $4,141.94, while Air Canada was selling the same package for $4,101.94.
"On these travel sites you think you are getting a good deal," said Cottrill. "Make sure what you are thinking you are getting, you actually get."