LOS ANGELES -- This is a story about two retirees who bought $753 round-trip tickets to Europe and wound up paying nearly $10,000.
It's also a story about self-serving airline policies, regulatory indifference and the perils of booking separate tickets for connecting flights.
Anthony and Carol Lopilato of Redondo Beach, Calif., booked their bargain fares from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport to Rome, flying out Dec. 19 and back Jan. 2, on Alitalia Airlines. Then, they booked an American Airlines flight from Los Angeles International Airport scheduled to arrive at JFK more than three hours before their Alitalia flight.
The flight was delayed by "equipment issues," American spokesman Tim Smith said. The jet pulled into JFK too late for the Lopilatos to make their Alitalia flight.
At first, the couple said, American tried to help. Its staff reserved seats for them on its own flight to London that night and then on to Italy on British Airways, all for free.
But shortly before takeoff, the Lopilatos said, the staff said they had no seats and instead offered to put them up at a hotel with no guarantee that they would get on a flight the next day.
When the Lopilatos asked what happened to the seats American had booked for them, they were offered one-way tickets - for $2,065 each, the walk-up fare.
Worried about missing their group tour in Italy, the couple ponied up. When they arrived in Italy, they learned that Alitalia had canceled their return booking because they had missed the outbound flight.
So they paid American more than $2,000 each for tickets back to the U.S.
"I was livid," Carol says.
Smith said the carrier withdrew its offer of free seats because Alitalia's ticket counter had closed, so Alitalia could not endorse over the Lopilatos' tickets, which would ensure that American would be reimbursed.
In an e-mail to the Lopilatos denying their request for more than $8,000 in ticket refunds, Barbara J. Russell of American's customer-relations department wrote, "You see, it's not our intent to provide free travel."
Russell suggested the couple turn to Alitalia for refunds.
But in an e-mail to me, Alitalia spokesman Simone Cantagallo said that when customers miss a flight without advance notice and "due to circumstances not caused by Alitalia, the airline is not liable for reimbursement of ... nonrefundable tickets," such as those the Lopilatos bought.
The hapless couple had fallen into a regulatory black hole.
"There are no DOT rules covering this [missed connections involving two carriers], and airlines generally don't pay compensation in these cases," said Bill Mosley, U.S. Department of Transportation spokesman.
Indeed, American said it wasn't responsible for the Lopilatos' missing their Alitalia flight.
"They paid us only for transportation between LAX and JFK," Smith said.
The airline apologized for the flight delay and gave the couple 3,000 bonus frequent-flier miles.
How do you avoid such a debacle? I'm tempted to say: "Stop flying and start lobbying for laws that make airline executives take ethics courses."
Here are other ideas from experts:
Fly nonstop. But if you must connect to a foreign destination, allow at least six hours. Avoid going through congested New York, said Susan Tanzman, owner of Martin's Travel & Tours Inc. in Los Angeles. If your trip involves a cruise or group tour, arrive the day before.
Book on alliance partners. Typically, airlines in the same alliance sell seats on one another's planes. If you have a problem, the airline that sold you the ticket is responsible for solving it, said Jeffrey Miller, a travel attorney in Columbia. Alitalia and American are in different alliances.
Engage a travel agent. When you set up a many-faceted foreign trip, "buying a la carte is fraught with potential risk," said Dan McGinnity, spokesman for AIG Travel Guard, a travel insurer in Stevens Point, Wis. A travel agent can stitch the parts together and trouble-shoot.
Buy trip insurance. Although some policies cap missed-connection payments at $500 or less, they often include a crisis line with staff who can negotiate with carriers.
"We have a little more leverage," McGinnity said.
As the Lopilatos learned, when you're caught between two airlines, you need all the help you can get.
Jane Engle writes for the Los Angeles Times.