Who benefits from a difficult airfare refund process?

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By | March 28th, 2016

If you’ve ever tried to get a refund from an airline, you know how tedious it can be. The forms. The bureaucracy. The delays.

You can probably relate to someone like Eric Amundson, who recently tried to get his money back for his airline tickets, checked baggage fees, and preferred main cabin seat fees after American Airlines canceled his flight from Jackson, Miss., to Charlotte.

Although I can’t move the process along any faster, there’s good news for him and others like him, who just want the refund they deserve. I’ll have details momentarily.

But first, let’s hear from Amundson. His flight was canceled because of mechanical reasons — specifically, the airspeed indicator on the aircraft wasn’t working.

“After speaking with an American Airlines agent, who informed me that we could not reach our final destination of Baltimore yesterday, I cancelled our round trip,” he says. “When I requested a refund, she notified me that I would have to go to aa.com to request a refund.”

Here’s where it gets interesting:

He continues,

After wasting four hours at Jackson’s airport yesterday afternoon, we returned home, where I went online to request the refund. That process involved entering the 13 digit “document number” for each of our three tickets in addition to other information including name, email address, mailing address and phone number for each of us.

Each ticket refund request involved working through five to six windows, each of which required the entry of information, prior to issuing confirmation numbers.

This afternoon, I realized that those refunds did not include the checked baggage fee of $25 or the preferred main cabin seat fees, totaling $70 to $80. I had to log in again to enter requests for each fee, totaling four, which each had 13 digit “document codes.” Each of the four fee refund requests required that I enter the same list of information American already has regarding those fees on five to six different windows per fee.

Now, why would American create a process like this? Why wouldn’t refunds be automatic? (And by the way, American clearly discloses that fact on its site.)

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One reason is accounting, and that’s perfectly valid. You don’t want to make it so easy that anyone can get a refund, even if it’s not deserved. That’s understandable.

But this? This is the kind of bureaucracy I’m used to seeing in Europe, where I lived for many years. It’s bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake. And maybe there’s an ulterior motive, too.

“The cynic in me thinks that this refund process was made deliberately cumbersome by American with the hope that customers would either not remember to request ancillary fee, such as baggage and preferred seats, or realize that it was not worth their time,” he says. “I would not be surprised to learn that American pockets substantial funds in unclaimed fees associated with involuntary flight cancellations due to this process.”

That wouldn’t surprise me, either.

But there’s great news for frustrated air travelers like Amundson. The Senate version of the FAA Reauthorization Bill has a provision that might make future refund requests much easier.

Section 3109 would require an airline to “promptly provide an automatic refund to a passenger in the amount of any applicable ancillary fees paid if the covered air carrier has charged the passenger an ancillary fee for checked baggage but the covered air carrier fails to deliver the checked baggage to the passenger not later than 6 hours after the arrival of a domestic flight or 12 hours after the arrival of an international flight.”

And section 3110 would require an automatic refund for canceled flight, and “require each covered air carrier to promptly provide an automatic refund to a passenger of any ancillary fees paid for services that the passenger does not receive, including on the passenger’s scheduled flight or, if rescheduled, a subsequent replacement itinerary.”

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Opponents of the Senate FAA bill say the legislation, with its many consumer-friendly provisions, is a solution looking for a problem. But cases like Amundson’s suggest that’s not correct. I think he may be right, by the way. I’m hard-pressed to see a consumer benefit to filling out all those forms for a refund. Can you?

Who benefits from a difficult airfare refund process?

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  • Altosk

    Airlines just want people to give up. That’s why the process is so complicated. Period.

  • Peter Varhol

    I don’t think that airlines intentionally make the refund process difficult. That assumes they have thought about it at all. Rather, they want to make it as painless for themselves as possible. If they don’t make you go looking for all of the codes, some employee would have to do so. This doesn’t make it right, but it does make it understandable.

  • Mel65

    The level of bureaucracy he had to go thru for his refunds is ridiculous. If everyone was traveling together on one reservation, all fees and monies paid associated with that reservation should be refunded together. I’d have been tempted to throw my laptop across the room if I had to do all that!! Better yet, when he was at the airport and notified of the cancelled flight and subsequently cancelled his entire itinerary, that should have “kicked off” a refund process immediately, rather than making the customer go thru such a process for THEIR mistake!

  • MarkKelling

    Interesting. It appears that AA just really don’t ever want to give a passenger his money back. First with their backwards application of the 24 hour refund rule and now making a customer go through multiple pages of redundant forms with no guarantee the refund will ever happen.

    In contrast, I was to fly on United from Denver last week during the blizzard. My flight was cancelled. What was the refund process? Here it is in excruciating detail:
    1. Went to the web site and logged into my account.
    2. Clicked on the flight.
    3. Was given 2 options: Cancel and refund or Reschedule.
    4. Selected Cancel and Refund.
    5. Screen popped up asking I was sure.
    6. Clicked yes.
    7. Was presented a refund notification with a suggestion to print it.
    8. Received an email 5 minutes later confirming the refund.
    9. Refund was on my credit card two days later.

  • Travelnut

    Yeah, I just don’t believe that AA doesn’t tie all of the ancillary fees to the reservation so that all fees can be refunded simultaneous to the refund of the airfare. Or if they haven’t, their IT department is unbelievably inept. They just want the customer to pay for it, timewise, or just give up.

  • MarkKelling

    Probably another situation where policies were literally interpreted and implemented. That is, the policy probably says a refund for ancillary fees can be granted if certain forms are filled out but no exception to filling out the forms mentioned in the case of cancelled flights where a refund request for the flight itself must be filled out separately or no spot n the flight refund request exists to ask for the other fees as well.

  • Peter

    Note to AA: It’s 2016. There is this remarkable thing called software. It helps eliminate unnecessary repetitive tasks and improves efficiency.

    While I wouldn’t discount the impact of organizational stupidity (the result of committee based decisions), the cynic in me believes that when inefficiency and bureaucracy benefit an organizarion, it’s rarely by accident.

  • cscasi

    But, you did not mention if the process covered just the ticket or would also cover any bag fees and any advanced seat reservations (say for preferred seating), which you may or may not have had. I have used United’s online cancellation system before and it was pretty simple. However, I did not have any checked bag fees nor preferred seating fees.
    Perhaps you can enlighten me here.

  • cscasi

    Perhaps Chris could contact American Airlines about this and get a true explanation of why this was implemented and why it was set up with so many steps and requires all the information it does; separately for each passenger on the reservation? Perhaps, and only perhaps, if this was brought to its attention of American Airlines, it could see that while it thought it was making things better, in fact it was making things harder for multiple persons on one reservation. Perhaps it could go in and tweak the process to make it more user friendly.

  • MarkKelling

    True I had no extra fees on my ticket. Don’t know how that would work, but I remember wording to the effect that those would be included with the standard “when allowed” disclaimer.