Who benefits from a difficult airfare refund process?

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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