Bumping games: how American redefined ‘denied boarding’

It was bound to happen, given that airlines are now required to double their compensation for passenger who are involuntarily denied boarding. If you can’t change the rule, just change the definition of “denied boarding.”

That’s exactly what Mohit Singla alleges American Airlines did when he tried to board a flight from Chicago to Dallas recently. Although he had a valid boarding pass, the airline stopped him from getting on the flight. “My seat was given to people on a waiting list,” he says. He paid $800 to fly to Dallas on Southwest, and wants American to pay for the new ticket.

Here’s how American responded to him:

I’m terribly sorry we couldn’t accommodate you aboard flight 2303 on March 7. Due to the weather, the flight was overbooked and we were forced to remove some passengers from the flight and reaccommodate them. While there were very good reasons for doing so, they are of little solace when you are the one who’s plans are disrupted. Again, I apologize.

I’ve authorized personnel in our Passenger Refunds department to issue the applicable refund. Once the adjustment is processed by the accounting specialists in that department, a credit will be issued directly to your credit card account. Please look for that transaction on your statement (this could take up to two billing cycles).

While I must decline your request to reimburse you for the Southwest Airlines ticket, we are not unmindful of the inconvenience to you. As a gesture of goodwill and apology, we’ve made arrangements for [a $100] eVoucher for you to use toward the purchase of a ticket to travel with us. I hope you will accept our gesture in the spirit of compromise. The next time you travel with us, we’ll do our best to make sure your trip is a good one.

Sincerely,

Fredia Luckey
Customer Relations
American Airlines

I was surprised by this response, and so was Singla. So they removed him from the flight — that’s an involuntary denied boarding situation — but blamed it on the weather? In other words, American has created a new class of denied boarding (a “weather denied boarding”?) to which to normal denied-boarding rules as outlined in its contract of carriage don’t apply?

Here’s Singla’s response:

Thank you for your reply. I must say that you email and $100 coupon just did not make me happy. Rather, it made me think that you did not understand my reason for writing to you.

I had checked in online and had valid boarding passes for my entire trip in my hand. I was denied boarding despite that, when I was in line to get in the plane. That flight took off from Chicago to Dallas on time. So I WAS NO ALLOWED TO BOARD! That resulted in about $800 expense and all the problems for me to get to my destination in addition to stress.

Normally, when a passenger is on the stand by list, he/she can be denied boarding but not a passenger with confirmed boarding pass. If a passenger decided to voluntarily give up his/her seat, he is reasonably compensated by the airline and booked ticket on next available flight to destination.

In this case, none were done and you are giving me $100 to shut up. I feel insulted at this insensitivity. I urge AA to review this matter and reasonably compensate me. I am not asking like medical malpractice attorneys for non economic damages, extreme mental agony, and punitive damages etc, I am just asking for reasonable economic compensation for my losses.

If this matter is not resolved per the FAA guidelines and laws I may be forced to report this to the higher law regulation authorities. I hope you or your higher authorities will review this matter and resolve it amicably.

Thank you,

Mohit Singla, MD

Allow me to interrupt this exchange. My reading of American’s conditions of carriage leads me to conclude Singla is entitled to the following:

[P]ayment equal to the sum of the face value of your flight coupon(s) to your point of destination or first stopover, subject to a maximum of $200. However, if American cannot arrange “alternate transportation” (as defined below) for you, the compensation will be doubled subject to a maximum of $400.

But will American reconsider? Here’s the letter back to Singla.

Dear Dr. Singla:

A careful review has been accomplished of the entire file and reports which have been obtained concerning your ticket to travel with us on March 7. We wish things had worked out differently and can understand your perseverance in this matter.

Denied Boarding Compensation is a penalty that airlines must pay to customers who hold confirmed reservations and have checked in for a flight but are not accommodated. Unfortunately, we were required to involuntarily remove you from the flight after you had checked in. In lieu of denied boarding compensation, we can and have processed a full refund of your ticket.

While we regret your continued dissatisfaction with our offer to gesture of apology for the inconvenience, we believe it is reasonable and appropriate. Dr. Singla, I’m not eager to disappoint you again but we don’t agree that additional compensation is warranted.

Although we understand that you don’t agree with our decision, it is based on sound business practices, as well as our past experience. I am sorry to disappoint you further.

Sincerely,

Fredia Luckey
Customer Relations
American Airlines

That’s complete nonsense. There is no difference between involuntary denied boarding and “we were required to involuntarily remove you.”

Singla is taking American to small claims court, which I think is the right next step. He’s also contacting the Transportation Department to file a formal complaint.

But beyond that, I’m worried that the airlines have simply tightened their definition of “involuntary denied boarding” now that they have to pay more compensation to passengers.

That would be disturbing, but not surprising.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on our help forum.

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  • portabelly

    I have recently flown to South America, and was bumped by LAN.  I have flown many times, and have never encountered this.  Once in 1993 I was in America on the way to Vail.  They had overbooked, but they seemed to handle the entice volunteers quite well and it was not a problem.  Call me naive, but it never occurred to me that I could be involuntarily denied boarding!  We go skiing every year, and was thinking of revisiting US, but I cannot put up with this crap!  In fact, the way I feel at the moment I cannot see myself leaving Australia, definitely for the rest of this year, and then who knows!  However, LAN and AA are unlikely to be on my list of airlines to fly.