Travel Agent Upset with Azamara/Insurer; Assists Elderly Azamara Guest with Medical Dilemma Overseas

UPDATE on Monday, Aug. 26 reported Friday on a situation with an Azamara Club Cruises guest, 89-year-old Dodge Melkonian, who broke his hip onboard Azamara Quest, while the ship was sailing off the Black Sea Coast of Turkey.

Melkonian and his wife Jill, also in her 80s, were transported to the closest hospital in Bartin, Turkey. However, the government hospital was not equipped to deal with the injury the guest sustained and the staff did not speak English. In addition, Mrs. Melkonian was not permitted inside the medical facility due to local customs.

No one for the line nor the insurer, OnCall International, was "physically" on site with the couple for several days. Someone from the Azamara Care Team showed up on Friday, four days later. 

Here's our update today after speaking with the couple's travel agent, Tammy Levent, Elite Travel International, Clearwater, FL. 

Levent said the Azamara Club Cruises Care Team person stayed on site with the couple on Friday and over the weekend, although she said that person is now gone.

OnCall also has been in touch with Levent and told her it would like to set up arrangements to fly the couple home on the 28th. But Levent reports Mr. Melkonian must meet certain medical parameters, based on his initial surgery. He also now has a fever. So it's unknown if a transAtlantic flight on the 28th would be doable, she said. 

Communications between the agent and her clients is also proving a bit of a challenge. Turkish law apparently prevents use of a phone by a foreigner after so much time has elapsed -- reportedly as a standard anti-terrorism precaution -- so the Melkonians' U.S. cell phone account has been cut off.

The Melkonians were provided with a phone on site (by either the cruise line or OnCall) but it doesn't appear to have texting or international call features, according to Levent.  

Levent is still talking with the line about a guarantee for the hospital bill. She's asked for a letter on official company letterhead that explains they have accepted responsibility to pay, given that he broke his hip on the ship, not ashore. She said the line has emailed her about the situation with the bill, but she still wants a letter.  

Separately, asked Azamara's public relations office as well as the PR rep for OnCall International for an update Monday morning. OnCall's PR rep responded that she is checking with the insurer. If any update is sent from the line or the insurer, it will be posted here.

Original Story Posted Friday, Aug. 23 

One elderly couple and their travel agent are upset with how Azamara Club Cruises and the line's insurance company, OnCall International, have handled a serious medical issue that the 89-year-old male guest, Dodge Melkonian, had in Bartin, Turkey, a remote port along the northern Black Sea coastline.

The couple, both experienced international travelers who have visited at least 190 countries and are veterans of 30 cruises, were in their cabin on Azamara Quest when the man broke his hip at about 1:30 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 19 said Tammy Levent, CEO, Elite Travel Management Group of Clearwater, FL.

She is a long-time agent for the couple and their friend as well. Levent described Azamara's initial onboard medical response as "wonderful," but says what happened after is, frankly, unacceptable for both a supplier and its insurer.

ABC News in Tampa Bay covered the story with interviews from both the client and the agent:

Difficult Week in a Foreign Land

After the couple were left at a government hospital in Turkey -- and in a more remote city, not Istanbul -- with no cruise line representative on site to assist in dealing with the local hospital staff, Mrs. Melkonian, also in her 80s, called Elite Travel in a panic. 

She told Elite Travel that she and her husband were transported off the ship and to a government hospital that was dirty and not designed as a facility that could assist with the serious hip injury her husband had. The hospital staff did not speak English and due to traditional local customs, women were not permitted to enter the hospital.

Often cruise lines will send an onboard crew member directly to the hospital with the guest to provide moral support, communicate with the ship or help handle things on site, at least initially. It's a fairly common industry practice.

That said, it appears, based on client feedback to the travel agent that no representative from either the insurer, the ship nor the line's Care Team has been on site "physically" with the couple all week -- until Friday, Aug. 23. 

Levent appeared on the Fox News network show at 7:45 a.m. on Aug. 23 and said that the first on-site representative from the line or insurer had appeared on site to assist. 

Agent to the Rescue

Throughout the week, both Levent and Judy Sontag, a 13-year Elite Travel agent from Philadelphia, have worked tirelessly to assist the couple dealing with representatives of OnCall and the cruise line, including some people who Levent describes as either curt or downright rude. 

One representative questioned why Levent was even involved in the process -- clearly not understanding the agent of record's role and responsibility to the client.   

Levent secured the help of U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) whom she described as being "furious about the situation." He contacted the U.S. State Department and they worked to help set up an ambulance to transport the clients from Bartin to the American Hospital in Istanbul, as the clients were not advised of any immediacy of action by the insurer.  

However, the insurer then, according to Levent, became prickly and didn't want the client to accept those arrangements. So they were cancelled and finally, the insurer did provide an ambulance a bit later. 

The real hero of this situation, according to Levent, is a kind, compassionate Turkish tour operator representative, Okan Kutla; Elite Travel has used his English guiding services many times in Turkey.

Levent contacted him and he offered to assist in every way possible. He talked with the U.S. Embassy, translated for the couple when he arrived on site, and kept in touch with the agency. He even donated blood when the hospital had no blood of the client's type and Kutla was a match.  

He was "absolutely wonderful," said Levent, who also said the Turkish staffers at the hospital in Bartin also were nice, but they just had language issues; they acknowledged their hospital just wasn't the level of medical facility needed to effectively treat a broken hip injury.  

Azamara's Side of the Story

From its side, Azamara's corporate spokesperson, Cynthia Martinez, provided a statement to TravelAgentCentral on Thursday, Aug. 22: 

"We have been working closely with Mr. and Mrs. Melkonian since Mr. Melkonian fell while onboard our ship. Unfortunately, because of the extent of his injury, Mr. Melkonian could not remain on the ship. We helped arrange transportation via ambulance to the closest area hospital. Once ashore, we worked closely with the travel insurance provider, as they have the expertise to deal with local authorities and medical facilities.

"Even though Mr. and Mrs. Melkonian had to leave the ship, we still provided assistance to them while in Turkey. Actually, one of our Care Team Specialists is still in contact with them today. The health and safety of all our guests is always our top priority. We will continue to do what we can to assist Mr. and Mrs. Melkonian, and we wish him a speedy recovery."

However, because Levent told that the line had absolutely no one on site to assist the clients in Turkey, and that no Care Team person was on site with them even days after they left the ship for the hospital, we went back to Azamara and questioned the accuracy of that line in the statement.

Azamara then issued this explanation:  "There is a Care Team representative based in Miami that has been assisting the couple remotely. And yes, another Care Team member will arrive to the hospital tomorrow [translation: Friday, Aug. 23]." asked OnCall International's public relations representative by e-mail on Aug. 22 for a statement or response. No response was received. 

Levent told that throughout the process of working on this problem, she learned that the cruise line has five Care Team members across the globe; the one being sent to assist the Melkonians reportedly was previously occupied with a guest in Croatia. 

Some agents have asked Levent why her clients purchased insurance through the cruise line, rather than buying the insurance that Elite Travel normally sells? That's another quirk. This was a complimentary "make-up" cruise (due to a past fire issue on Azamara Quest).

So Levent said the couple weren't able to take the agency's normal insurance as the price of their trip was zero. Travel insurers generally need to see a price paid for the product to issue full-bodied insurance up to a certain amount. There may be some exceptions to that policy, based on the vendor used and coverage features required. In this case, the couple opted for cruise line insurance.    

Communications have been dicey among the parties. Levent said the hospital had told the guests at one point that they would have to pay because the insurer "had revoked" its previous guarantee of payment. 

Since then Elite Travel has had some discussion with the insurer's representatives with some promises to pay, but says she still cannot get "in writing" -- on official corporate letterhead -- what amounts they will cover.

Levent also understands perfectly well that Azamara's ship certainly couldn't be expected to stay in the area just because one guest needed to disembark for a medical emergency. But she had hoped for more action-focused, immediate help from the line or its insurer once the situation unfolded on land.  

Melkonian is now in the American Hospital in Istanbul, has had some surgery but likely needs more and will need to be flown home by air ambulance, but Levent says "when" is the question. 

As a back-up plan, if the insurer does not respond in a timely manner, Levent said she was proactively contacted by Trinity Ambulance of Fort Lauderdale, FL, which has offered to fly her clients home by air ambulance at no cost and to do whatever is needed to "help out" in this situation, Levent said. 

Challenging Times

The story comes at a particularly sensitive time for the cruise industry, which is dealing with the publicity related to raising of the Costa Concordia  off the coast of Italy in a few weeks, as well as increasingly irritable legislative officials who have called for greater "accountability" of the cruise industry. 

While CLIA proactively created a Passenger Bill of Rights earlier this year that's since been adopted by all its member lines and well-received by many cruisers, some consumer advocates and maritime attorneys say more must be done.   

Levent said U.S. Senator Nelson was quite upset about this situation; the ABC Television affiliate in Tampa reported that Nelson said the cruise line has a responsibility to assist the passengers and not just off-load them in a foreign port where they are unable to get medical assistance.

This situation brings home another important point, says Levent. "Agents have to be at the front line in this industry." She and Sontag have had little sleep during a rough week in going to bat for her clients.

She's committed to making sure all is done that can be done to help them get home and get them to the right medical facility. ASTA's point of "Without a Travel Agent You're on Your Own" is precisely the point, and network media have taken notice.

Today's Fox News appearance by Levent is now up on the Fox News site, with the headline: "Argument for Having a Good, Old-Fashioned Travel Agent." 

So with all that's happened, one might think the Melkonians wouldn't be enthusiastic about cruising again soon. But Levent tells us that when the client awakened after surgery, he asked his wife: "When are we going on our next cruise?" will keep you updated here about that progress, as well as any follow-up from the line or the insurer.