When compassion for customers flies out the window

American Airlines shows astonishing insensitivity by charging a couple coping with a family emergency almost $700 to push back a one-hour flight by one day.

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It never ceases to amaze me when large companies, which claim to put customers first, demonstrate their complete heartlessness.

The behavior of airlines when a passenger faces a family emergency is a continuing source of such insensitivity.

Sue Ogle, 57, and her husband recently paid $1,200 each to fly on American Airlines from Orange County to Toledo, Ohio. The Laguna Beach resident said she travels there often to see her 93-year-old father, who is in declining health.

The day after she arrived in Toledo, Ogle's father had a heart attack, which wasn't fatal but nevertheless worrisome enough for her and her husband to rearrange their return flight.

They had booked a one-day layover in Chicago, but decided instead to spend that extra day in Toledo with Ogle's dad.

In other words, they wanted to push back the one-hour flight from Toledo to Chicago by a day. Not too much to ask for, you'd think, under the circumstances. They weren't looking for a refund. Just a little more time with an ailing relative.

The American Airlines rep, Ogle said, was "completely lacking in compassion." Despite being told of the heart attack, he insisted that the couple each pay a $200 change fee and nearly $150 apiece for newly issued tickets — almost $700 in total.

"We paid it," Ogle told me. "But I was furious. The fact that my father just had a heart attack wasn't even a consideration."

American, like most airlines, offers what it calls a "compassion fare." This is intended for "customers traveling because of a medical emergency or death of a family member."

But there are limits to the carrier's compassion.

Matt Miller, a spokesman for the airline, said the special fare is applicable only when requested at the outset of a trip — that is, you have to ask for it when booking a round-trip ticket.

Where Ogle erred, apparently, was in not anticipating her father's heart attack well before it happened and arranging her itinerary accordingly.

"That's not what we're trying to imply," Miller responded. "We understand that this was an extenuating circumstance."

Yet Ogle received no special consideration from the airline worker at the Toledo airport, nor did she find any flexibility when she later spoke by phone with a supervisor on the reservations desk.

Miller told me that Ogle might have gotten more understanding had she contacted a customer-service rep, rather than a reservations supervisor.

I'm not buying that. Not only should a reservations supervisor have known how to handle a situation like this, he or she at the very least should have had the wherewithal to transfer Ogle to someone who could.

The airline's ice-cold behavior is all the more astonishing in light of the fact that Ogle is a regular customer, flying to see her dad every other month.

American finally changed its tune. The airline contacted Ogle after my conversation with Miller and said it would refund the change fees and fare increases.

"Apologies to her for the stress she had to go through," Miller told me.

Pay as you go

Speaking of companies with less heart than the Tin Woodman, a tip of the funnel cap to health insurer Aetna.

The company announced in June that it would terminate most individual insurance policies in California at the end of the year, leaving thousands of customers high and dry.

Aetna also is opting out of the state's so-called insurance exchange opening in January as part of the Affordable Care Act. The exchange is intended to provide coverage to people who aren't insured through an employer's group plan.

Harlan Lassiter, 58, is one of the Aetna customers who will lose coverage as part of the company's efforts to save a buck. For the last five years, the Newport Beach resident has been paying Aetna $389 a month in premiums and swallowing an $8,000 deductible.

Now, adding insult to injury, he's just received a notice from the insurer saying that his monthly premium will rise 19% in October for his final three months of coverage.

Anjie Coplin, an Aetna spokeswoman, told me the rate hike is intended to cover expected medical costs prior to the company decamping from the individual insurance market.

Lassiter figures it like this: "They're trying to squeeze a few more bucks out of me before they stop covering me."

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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