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Air New Zealand

Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Air New Zealand has admitted it made a mistake when it tried to charge two US tourists $13,000 to change their flights after one of them received a grave medical diagnosis.

Todd and Patricia Kerekes flew business class from New York to Auckland in January. The return tickets cost $37,500.

They intended to stay until April, but six weeks into their visit Patricia was diagnosed with cancer of the gallbladder. Their surgeon advised them to head home immediately, so Todd contacted Air NZ to have their flights moved up.

“Right away on the first call I told them my wife was gravely ill, and we were on holiday and we needed to go back home,” the 60-year-old told Checkpoint.

“And it was a whole series of long pauses, and I couldn’t tell whether they were conferring with co-workers or working at it on the computer, or what it was. But I would go through a whole series of 15- to 30-minute hold periods, and sometimes the people would come back and basically tell me something I didn’t want to hear, like it was gonna cost me NZ$13,000 to change my flight.”

Todd said he was “momentarily stupefied”, saying the new seats were only about $100 more expensive than what he had already paid.

“It was just such a large amount, it did not seem like the flights could possibly have gone up by that much. What they were charging me was four times what the increase in the cost of the flights were.”

In his four-hour effort to get a more reasonable price, Todd said he was cut off three times, never offered any compassionate options and was not once asked for documentation or proof of his wife’s diagnosis.

“They weren’t rude or unkind, but they were simply like, ‘Look, this is the way it is and there’s nothing we can do about it.’ And I was like, it was surprising to me that in a situation where I was that they couldn’t be more helpful.”

The most surprising thing was that everyone he had met so far in New Zealand had been so kind.

“I grew up in New York, outside of New York City, and New Yorkers are unfriendly. We just tend to be brusque. But Kiwis are downright nice to the point where people were arguing with us that people aren’t really as nice as we thought they were…

“It’s not right by any standards, and it’s definitely not right by Kiwi standards.”

‘Fell short of expectations’

Air NZ general manager customer care Alisha Armstrong agreed. In a statement, she said Air NZ “pride ourselves on the care and consideration we show our customers”.

“It’s clear we fell short of expectations and our compassionate care policy was not followed in this case. We have reached out to Kerekes to apologise and issue a full refund for the additional costs incurred to change their original flights.

“Our compassionate fare policy is in place to support our customers in times of unexpected medical emergency or bereavement to book a last-minute flight or provide flexibility to easily make changes to existing bookings.

“Once again we apologise for how this case was handled and our thoughts are with Mrs Kerekes at this time.”

Todd said Patricia, 75, only had about four months left.

“I resent having that four hours taken away from whatever time I would have spent [with] her, and I do not appreciate the aggravation that my wife had to go through for this.”

And he worried how people without a New York attitude might fare in a similar situation.

“Although they have sorted me out – and I appreciate that – what about the people who don’t come out with this ‘I’m not going to let you put the screws to me attitude’ like I did? And the people that don’t have the energy because they’re the ones who are gravely ill or don’t have the time to sort that out?

“How many people are there out there that don’t have the opportunities that I had and the resources that I had?”

The Kerekes flew home on 26 February.

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