AUSTIN (KXAN) — It took more phone calls and digging through the internet before Jill Fosse finally tracked down one of the top Via Air bosses: vice president of operations Dominic Acevedo.
He’s the same man KXAN flew to Orlando to interview in July. The same man who promised to fix the complaints we uncovered in our investigation into passengers being stranded by his airline, promised reimbursements, then never giving the reimbursements. Until now.
"This is my email back, they gave me my full refund and we are all squared up and good to go," Fosse said as she showed off the reimbursement Acevedo had the airline send her. After a six-month, relentless pursuit of her $770.28 reimbursement, Jill Fosse was taken care of.
"Once they heard my side of the story again, they committed to me a check. They said you know what – this is our policy for a voucher. I said I understand that, but this is not what they said, that is not what I have in writing and they said, you know what – OK. And, they did give me my refund,” Fosse said, describing her conversation with Acevedo.
Fosse was forced to purchase $770.28 in emergency plane tickets on other airlines after Via Air canceled her flight in March. The airline sent Fosse an email, telling her she would be reimbursed, but that didn’t happen until August.
As of this report, Fosse is the only customer we’ve been in contact with who has reported receiving a full reimbursement of emergency plane tickets. The rest were offered travel vouchers to use on a future Via Air flight.
“I believe in customer service. I was not aware of the details of these travelers, but we will resolve this in a more systemic issue in terms of improving the training in the department, look at the oversight as well in that department to see what the breakdown was, but I’m committed to fixing it,” Acevedo told KXAN in July.
Via Air sent this written statement to KXAN on Aug. 21 from director Don Bowman: “In recent days Via Airlines has conducted an internal review of its policies and procedures regarding compensation, and has been able to successfully reach mutually acceptable solutions with many of our guests. We continue to work diligently with the remaining guests to find a mutually acceptable solution for them as well."
Bowman’s statement also touted a nearly-perfect record of completed flights in 2018. We asked Via Air for records of each flight so we could verify the airline’s claims. Bowman told KXAN on multiple occasions the airline would provide that data, but in an Aug. 21 email, Bowman wrote that “the synopsis of the operational data is all I have been authorized to issue.”
"If people complain enough, maybe it gets loud enough for people to begin to know about it,” Dr. Dean Headley said. Headley is a nationally-recognized airline expert and publishes an annual quality rating of airline performance.
Headley believes people who choose to fly smaller, low-cost carriers can’t make informed decisions about the airline’s performance because the U.S. Department of Transportation doesn’t publish performance data for smaller airlines.
"You have to rely on word of mouth. And, it appears this airline hasn't had the greatest word of mouth lately. So, they don't have a lot of track record that you could look at," Headley said.
Our initial investigation highlighted the Hassler family who spent $5,100 on emergency plane tickets in February after Via Air canceled their flight from Steamboat Springs, Colorado to Austin. The six-member family had to drive from Steamboat Springs to Denver to catch a flight home.
Kelly Hassler got the final decision from Via Air on Aug. 23. The airline would refund $870 for the Hassler’s original flight, but would only offer the remaining $3,246 in travel vouchers on a future Via Air flight.
The check's in the mail
The Hasslers and Fosse provided KXAN records showing they submitted the ticket receipts to Via Air as they were asked. Both said they waited the 30 days the airline asked for to process the reimbursements.
Then, it became harder to reach Via Air’s customer service center.
Fosse got through in April and got an email from Via Air, telling her the $770.28 reimbursement was approved and heading her way. “There is currently a delay in the processing of the checks but I want to assure you that the reimbursement has been submitted and has been approved and is currently on our expense list for the next set of checks to be signed and mailed,” the April 21 email stated.
That was the last Fosse heard from Via Air, “There’s been absolutely no response back from them at all. Everything to try to get the check has been me reaching out to them. I’ve called them, I’ve emailed— they’ve absolutely not responded,” Fosse said.
“I kept following up then. And they just kept saying, it’s in the queue, we have everything we need, I need one more sign off. They were still acting as though this was still happening,” Kelly Hassler said.
The Hasslers got some bad news in June. Instead of reimbursing the family for the $5,100, the Hasslers said the airline offered an $800 refund for their canceled Via Air flight tickets, and the remaining $4,200 in travel vouchers on a future Via Air flight.
“That’s when I got angry. That’s when you say, I’m $5,000 out and you’re not going to cut a check? I’ve been waiting a long time for those funds back — that’s a lot of money,” Kelly Hassler said.
Complaints galore — BBB Rating: F
“Sometimes you think: is it worth the fight if it’s a few hundred — it’s expensive to get an attorney — but in this case, it’s not right. And, I know there’s other people out there,” Hassler said. The family filed a Better Business Bureau complaint against Via Air.
Although Via Air isn’t a BBB-accredited business, the consumer complaint resolution service published an F rating for the airline in July. The BBB site showed 14 complaints and reviews; each complaint detailing various problems with service and cancellations. The BBB site now shows 21 complaints filed, but the site does not provide details of the new Via Air complaints.
We also found several other complaints from Via Air customers on social media sites. The United States Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division has fielded 60 formal complaints against Via Air since Jan. 1, 2017.
Although the department would not tell us whether it had any open investigations into the airline, one of the customers provided KXAN with a USDOT case number and emails confirming at least one active investigation.
As of this report, the USDOT’s online enforcement database does not show any violations lodged against Via Air.
Via Air’s headquarters has a sign posted outside the front door, showing the airline is a TripAdvisor-recommended business. We compared TripAdvisor reviews for each of the 17 airlines flying out of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Our analysis only included the two lowest ratings for each carrier.
Our analysis of Via Air reviews showed 71 percent of the airline’s reviews were in the worst categories.
The second-worst reviewed ABIA airline is Frontier Airlines with 47 percent and Allegiant Air was the third-worst rated with 27 percent of reviews in the worst categories. Southwest scored the best with only six percent of their reviews in the worst categories.
Ex-Via Air employee: 'The call center takes a beating like no other'
We got a look inside Via Air when a former employee agreed to an interview as part of this investigation. That worker, Fashawna Alexander, was a customer service representative. She and the airline parted ways in July.
“That call center takes a beating like no other,” Alexander said. In her last month at the airline, Alexander said cancellations were up and more calls were coming into the center. Call center workers didn’t work off a script when a customer would call, forcing the call takers to consult with the center’s manager for what to tell each customer, Alexander said.
“Our hands are tied. There was literally nothing we could do help somebody in that situation. Nobody wants to go into the job of customer service and you can’t provide the customer the service,” Alexander said, “That’s the difference, we couldn’t provide the customer the service. It was always: we can’t do this, we can’t do this, our hands are tied.”
“We were providing a reasonable flight, but you weren’t providing the service of actually operating,” Alexander said of the airline.
Alexander said when she first started working for Via Air, call takers were told by management to tell stranded customers the airline would fully reimburse ticket costs on a competing airline and even rental car costs were being reimbursed when Via Air would cancel a flight, which supports many of the stories we’d heard from customers during our investigation.
“Was this something you came up with or was this something you were getting from your bosses?” KXAN Investigator Jody Barr asked Alexander. “This is something we were getting from our bosses,” she said. “Everything that we said came from someone above us at Via Air — someone.”
But, around late June, Alexander said her bosses changed that cash reimbursement policy to a strict voucher system, meaning Via Air would only offer reimbursement to be used on a future Via Air flight.
For proof, Alexander said all Via Air has to do is listen to the recorded call center phone lines.
“So, what it boils down to is these customers were being told one thing and Via Air was failing to follow through?” Barr asked. “That’s what it boils down to,” Alexander replied.
Via Air promises action, training
“I’m just not aware of this being a systematic problem," Acevedo told KXAN. "Every now and then there may be miscommunication between a call center employee and a passenger, but usually, we try to address that on an individual basis." Acevedo blamed some of the airline’s problems on a “growing airline.”
In July, KXAN flew 1,100 miles to Orlando to interview Acevedo at Via Air’s headquarters.
KXAN detailed the Hassler and Fosse cases to Acevedo and questioned him about their stories that the airline promised to reimburse them, but five months later the checks haven’t been cut.
The airline has tried to settle the Hasslers' case with vouchers, Acevedo said, but the Via Air executive told KXAN he wasn’t aware of promises made by his call center of full cash reimbursement.
“I believe in customer service. I was not aware of the details of these travelers, but we will resolve this in a more systemic issue in terms of improving the training in the department, look at the oversight as well in that department to see what the breakdown was, but I’m committed to fixing it,” Acevedo said in that July interview.
The airline has a 7-day policy of refunding customers their unused ticket when a cancellation happens, Acevedo said, and the airline works to place those stranded customers on the “next available flight.”
The airline’s Contract of Carriage also offers roundtrip fares a cash reimbursement for having to purchase a “lowest fare” ticket on a competing airline when Via Air cancels.
Acevedo told KXAN he had not heard some of the details from customers that we showed him during our interview. “Are there things we’ve told you about how this call center’s operating that you didn’t know before?” Barr asked. “I would say yes," Acevedo responded, "I did not know that there was so much misinformation coming out of the call center, but as I stated before, it’s something that I’m personally going to look into and try to resolve."
We also asked Acevedo about the 60 complaints filed with the USDOT, the Better Business Bureau’s “F” rating and the dozens of complaints on TripAdvisor.
"We are a rapidly-growing company and we’re working hard to meet the needs of our guests,” he said, “but, moving forward, we’ll definitely take into consideration all of these complaints and everything that has happened to our guests and try to get the airline better organized moving forward.”
Via Air’s second-in-charge also promised to “fix” the outstanding problems in the Fosse and Hassler cases, “What they’re upset about is being told one thing by Via Air, 5 months later none of that has happened. They feel like they were lied to. Do these customers deserve better?” Barr asked.
“I would agree. Yes," Acevedo said. "They are our guests. I’m going to personally look into this and make sure we come to some type of resolution quickly because I don’t want these issues to continue."
Acevedo told KXAN the airline would consider clarifying its reimbursement policy and training its call center staff on exactly what the airline will and will not reimburse. A part of that review would be to make sure the airline has a process in place to review recorded calls from customers and to follow up on customer complaints, Acevedo said.
The airline’s spokesman Bowman did not provide any details to KXAN on the airline making any changes in its call center or to its reimbursement policies.