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27961: Hermantin(news)Haiti aid workers get no help from airline with hotel bills

From: leonie hermantin <lhermantin@hotmail.com>

Sun Sentinel

Haiti aid workers get no help from airline with hotel bills

By Jon Yates
Tribune staff reporter

February 22, 2006


A scheduling change by American Airlines resulted in an overnight stay and a
$450 hotel bill for a group of humanitarian aid volunteers headed to Haiti.


No change. None. American Airlines says its policy is not to provide hotel
vouchers for customers whose flights are rescheduled.

When word spread that Sue Walsh was planning a humanitarian mission to
Haiti, her friends and co-workers quickly pitched in.

Patients at her Glenview medical practice gave cash. Strangers attended
fundraisers. Local schoolchildren collected vitamins.

On Tuesday, the 48-year-old nurse practitioner and 10 volunteers embarked on
a nine-day medical journey to a small Haitian village. The group took with
it $5,000 in medical supplies and hundreds of dollars worth of vitamins--all
earmarked for needy Haitian children.

Everyone, Walsh said, has bent over backwards to help make the trip a

Except American Airlines.

Earlier this month, because fewer passengers were traveling to Haiti, the
airline canceled the volunteers' flight to Port-au-Prince and rescheduled
them on another.

Rather than leave Chicago Wednesday morning and have a brief layover in
Miami before taking a flight to Port-au-Prince the same day, the airline
scheduled the flights over two days.

Under the new itinerary, the group flew out of Chicago on Tuesday, stayed
overnight in Miami, and is scheduled to take off for Haiti Wednesday

The change means the volunteers, already on a shoestring budget, had to pay
for hotel rooms Tuesday night. Walsh said several members of the group
called American Airlines and asked for hotel vouchers, figuring that because
the airline was responsible for switching the flights, the airline should

When American Airlines refused, one of Walsh's friends wrote What's Your

Walsh said the volunteers planned to stay three to a room to save money and
booked the cheapest hotel they could find, the Sleep Inn Miami Airport. But
even with the cost-saving measures, the rooms are expected to cost about
$450, money the volunteers had hoped to spend to help sick Haitian children.

"It's hard, because all of us keep putting our money in, and we're like,
man, this could go to a much better purpose," Walsh said. "That would be a
lot of X-rays and a lot of lab work."

An airline spokeswoman told the Problem Solver that the company's policy is
to refuse to distribute hotel vouchers in case of canceled or rescheduled

"That's just the way it is," said Mary Frances Fagan. "That's our policy."

Fagan said American Airlines informed Walsh's travel agent, in this case
Capital One, of the change in schedule weeks ago, and the travel agent said
that was OK.

The airline would give out vouchers only if the group had been delayed due
to a mechanical problem on the plane, Fagan said.

Because the change was more than a 90-minute difference from the original
itinerary, Walsh and the rest of her group could have canceled their flights
and received a full refund.

But the group had no intention of canceling its travel plans, because doing
so would have halted the humanitarian mission.

"We're not going to cancel our tickets, of course not," Walsh said last
week. "That would mean we're not going. Unless they decide it's too unsafe
to travel in there, then we're going to go."

Walsh said she had been planning the trip to Haiti for about two years. She
decided to go shortly after her 21-year-old son, Bradley, was killed in a
motorcycle accident.

"When you have life-changing events like that, you just realize if you're
going to do something, just do it," she said, "because you don't know what
the future is going to bring."

Walsh, a nurse for 30 years, said she's helped people on missions within the
United States but was inspired to work abroad after reading the book
"Mountains Beyond Mountains," about Paul Farmer, a doctor who cared for the

"What it made me realize is you can do something as one person, if you're
willing to sort of put yourself into it," Walsh said. "You can really change
the world."

Walsh spoke to a friend who had been to Haiti and who introduced her to an
established missionary group. That group set her up with officials in a
small mountain village near Port-au-Prince.

She said there are 500 children in the village, but she has purchased enough
medicine for 800 kids, figuring more will show up for aid. The group's focus
is to deworm children who are infested and provide vitamins to the

Accompanying Walsh are other medical professionals, three students from a
medical class she teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and her
husband and one of his friends.

All are paying their own way, roughly $1,000 each. All also have taken
several hundred dollars extra to pay for medical tests for Haitian children
who need them.

"All the money we've raised is going to medication--every penny," she said.
"It has been a lot of work, but I think it's going to be a really amazing
experience for us and hopefully, just tremendously helpful."

Even without the hotel vouchers.


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