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Getting Around: Lawyer sues, US Airways ponies up contrition

Sunday, May 26, 2002

By Joe Grata, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Four days after a "Getting Around" column berating US Airways for lousy, obstinate performance on my return trip from Florida, a Fox Chapel family had a carbon copy experience heading home from a spring vacation.

Shawn Flaherty, like me, doesn't like to "diss" our favorite airline when it's on the verge of declaring bankruptcy and looking for $1 billion in federal loan guarantees.

Shawn Flaherty, like me, just wants to make a point about his miserable experience in the hope it helps improve the lot of all US Airways passengers, teaches management a lesson and challenges employees to do what it takes to satisfy customers.

But Shawn Flaherty, unlike me, is a lawyer. He filed a breach of contract lawsuit, recently settled out of court, received 10 round-trip tickets as compensation and, better yet, got a letter of apology. Nobody bothered to even call me.

I share the Flaherty family experience because I think many of you can relate to it, not necessarily flying US Airways, but other airlines as well.

US Airways employees told Shawn; his wife, Debbie; and their three children, Linda, 12; Patrick, 7; and Kara, 4, their flight from the Bahamas to the Charlotte, N.C., hub would be delayed several hours but that they had been reconfirmed on a connecting flight to Pittsburgh for 4:50 p.m.

The flight arrived in Charlotte at 4:30, according to the lawsuit, and sat on the runway for 10 minutes, waiting for a gate to clear. When the Flahertys finally reached the terminal, the gate agent told them to "hurry" to their plane.

They raced approximately a half-mile, with children and carry-on baggage in tow, only to watch the gate agent basically slam the door to the jetway in their face and say "sorry."

In the confusion that often follows missed flights, the Flahertys were re-booked onto an 8:50 p.m. flight. Then a supervisor directed them to another gate, saying they would be given the first stand-by seats on a 6:50 p.m. flight.

Other stand-bys were boarded. Not the Flaherty family. The gate agent turned them away because their checked luggage would not be on the plane. (As things turned out, the luggage went to Pittsburgh on the 6:50 flight anyhow.)

Shawn Flaherty said he was so angry and frustrated, "They called security on me. I was furious, but I was smart enough not to yell too loud or swear. I warned them I would not play their game, that I would sue."

About two weeks later, he did, citing federal regulations that state, in part, "With few exceptions, persons denied boarding involuntarily are entitled to compensation."

Before a June 13 hearing could be held in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, Flaherty got what he wanted for exasperating encounters, seven hours of delays, unfulfilled promises and general discourtesy: the apology, five round-trip tickets for the first flight they weren't allowed to board and another five tickets for the stand-by flight when the airline gave their seats away again.

"After I filed the suit, US Airways was absolutely professional about the whole thing," Flaherty said. "I didn't want money. I really want them to succeed."

In today's competition in the airline industry, courtesy, professionalism and performance have to run from the ticket agent to the pilot to the baggage handlers to David Siegel, the new guy at the top of US Airways.

Are you wondering whether Shawn Flaherty is related to another one-time tough guy, Pete Flaherty, a former Pittsburgh mayor and Allegheny County commissioner? Yes. Shawn is his son.

Another experience. The following letter from Matthew Dunn III of Burlington, Ky., speaks for itself, because it also says something about Pittsburghers. He writes:

"My father and I came to Pittsburgh on April 28 to look up and hopefully find existing relatives of my great grandparents, Cornelius Dunn and Mary (Schelle) Dunn, Irish immigrants, and other descendants.

"Arrival in your city was rather uneventful. In fact, it felt like back home in the Greater Cincinnati area -- people driving several miles over the posted speed limit in a hurry to get somewhere!

"The suffering and frustrations the people of your area must endure due to construction, detours and unclear road signs appeared to be beyond and above the call of human suffering. Yet whenever we were lost, people bent over backward to help or guide us to our desired location.

"In fact, one very nice man, a retired firefighter named William Coyne, got into his own vehicle to personally lead us to two places. When we asked if we owed him anything, he replied, 'Just say a prayer for my wife in the hospital.'

"This wasn't the only example. Entering and exiting places of business, people held doors for you and greeted you in a friendly manner, making you feel welcome, the opposite of back home, where you're lucky if 10 percent of the people treat each other with respect.

"I have traveled a lot through the Midwest and southwest coast. I never felt the respect I have felt in your city."

Dear Matthew:

Thank you. Please visit us again sometime soon. -- Joe

Oops. Last week when I reported state police on the Pennsylvania Turnpike stopped Dr. Charles Gallo of Monroeville for going 78 mph in a 55 mph speed zone, a decision he has appealed to court, I should have said his cruise control was set at 58 mph not 68 mph.

On another occasion, Gallo also was stopped for speeding but paid up because he said he was guilty. This time he believes he's a victim of "station averaging" under which the state police command on the turnpike has pressured troopers to write extra tickets under a policy tantamount to illegal quotas, thereby targeting marginal violators.

I made a 10 mph mistake and admit it. I'm wondering if the trooper who stopped eight other drivers in addition to Gallo within 20 minutes could have made a mistake, too. Nawww.

Plate du jour. I came upon a personalized license plate associated with the military -- AF AV8R -- befitting Memorial Day weekend. I'm sure you join me in wishing him GODSPED.

Send your transportation questions, complaints and suggestions to Joe Grata c/o The Post-Gazette or e-mail him at jgrata@post-gazette.com. Please include your name, address and phone number.

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