Haiti mission trip halted for church group, but Spirit Airlines was another challenge


VERMONTVILLE – The organizer of a local church’s mission trip to Haiti said civil unrest there, and the bureaucracy at a major airline, nearly prevented the group of 23 people from providing outreach anywhere abroad.

And the group, until Wednesday afternoon, had concluded they were out the $30,000 they’ve already spent on travel expenses with Spirit Airlines.

Vermontville Bible Church Secretary Sara Martin said a group of church officials and parishioners have been planning a week-long trip to a mission in Haiti since September.

Martin, her two sons, a church pastor and others were leaving Friday to volunteer with the nonprofit Mission of Hope in Haiti. They were going to assist with a local sports camp, paint houses and plant trees.

Over the weekend plans to raise gas prices in Haiti spurred unrest and violent demonstrations in the country.

Martin said the church group still held out hope they’d be able to go, but just before an emergency meeting about the trip Monday, the U.S. government issued a “do not travel” advisory for Haiti.

“We don’t think it’s safe to fly,” Martin, 43, said Wednesday morning.

Martin, and Vermontville Bible Church Pastor Joe Benedict, said they were hopeful the group could re-book their flight to Haiti for next summer, when everyone can get time off from school and work again.

Or at least change their destination to Jamaica, where another outreach they could join is ongoing.

But making those arrangements with Spirit Airlines at first looked impossible, Martin said.

That’s in part, Martin said, because the church group booked all but a few of their airline tickets with Spirit as a group.

When Martin called to talk with customer service staff at Spirit about their options airline staff told her she had to deal with Spirit Airline’s Group Reservations Department  — via email only.

Customers can’t reach the department by phone, Martin said, and there’s no number given out for anyone who works there.

What followed were a series of email exchanges between Martin and an airline representative that got the church group nowhere closer to a resolution and left Martin frustrated, and doubtful they would ever get one.

After learning the credit for the group booking expired within months, not a year, Martin said she struggled to get answers via email about whether the airline had seats available for everyone on flights to and from Jamaica this month.

The delayed responses over email with Spirit have hampered her attempts, Martin said. Wednesday morning Martin said she was no closer to having the group’s flights re-booked.

“If you could talk to somebody you could work it out, but when you send a message and wait 15 hours for a response it’s extremely frustrating.”

Derek Dombrowski, manager of media relations for Spirit Airlines, confirmed that airline ticket credits don’t usually extend a year out.

It’s also true, Dombrowski said, that the company’s Group Reservations Department “mainly” responds to customer inquires only through electronic communication “because of the high number of requests and correspondence,” he said in an email to the State Journal Wednesday afternoon.

“Currently, groups can request a phone call for our Group Reservations team via telephone by dialing our Guest Relations phone number or requesting a call via email,” Dombrowski said.

Martin said no one at Spirit ever offered her that option.

Next month Spirit plans to add telephone support for groups, Dombrowski said.


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