He took an oath — then American took his money

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Sometimes, air travelers change their plans for no good reason. Not Gary Green.

A judge ordered Green to testify in a court case, which required Green to delay his flight by a day. And you know what happens then, don’t you? There’s a change fee and a fare differential.

Now, some of you will say, “But Green could have chosen a more expensive, flexible ticket.”

Please.

Green couldn’t have known that the judge would ask him to stay in town another day. He couldn’t justify paying double or triple the amount of the regular economy class fare on American Airlines. Every day, passengers make decisions just like his, based largely on common sense: Why pay that much extra for a ticket on the same plane, in the same class of service? It makes zero sense.

Green’s wife, Donna, contacted me to see if American might consider refunding his original ticket. And that’s where this case went off the rails.

“I am extremely frustrated and sincerely hope you can help me with this matter,” she said.

Back in September, Green was a witness in a trial. At the end of the day, the judge required he return the next day for further testimony, even though he knew he had a flight the next morning.

“Not appearing would have resulted in the judge issuing a bench warrant for his arrest for failing to appear in court,” she says.

Of course, he complied.

I’ll let Gary Green pick it up from there:

Upon returning home that night, I contacted American Airlines to change my ticket for later the following day.

I was told that, although I booked through American, because the flight was operated by US Airways, I would not be able to fly later in the day without rebooking my entire itinerary.

The flight was paid for using my AA Mastercard, which entitled me and my wife and daughter (also flying with me) to have free checked baggage.

The resulting changes resulted in a fare increase from my original $426 to a total ticket charge of $2,082.

In addition, I had to spend another $100 for my wife and daughter’s checked bags as they were now split off my record locator number. I ended up flying standby just one flight later than my original flight.

American wasn’t completely unsympathetic. An agent refunded the $200 change fee and issued a $100 voucher to cover the “free” baggage fees. But the $2,082 charge stuck. All for doing the right thing.

Green even asked the judge to write a letter to American. I have a copy. It didn’t work:

American doesn’t have any provisions for refunding a non-refundable ticket for issues like court appearances or jury duty. You basically have to die before they’ll refund a nonrefundable ticket. Seriously.

“I really hope you will see merit in helping me to satisfactorily resolve this,” Green told me.

I do. There are several issues going on here. First, some of the written correspondence refers to a problem involving a “systems integration” between US Airways and American. The two carriers merged operations last year. I asked American and it said there were no such issues, at least as they pertained to this case. More likely, the merger was a catch-all excuse used by employees at the time. Fair enough.

Was American right in charging Green another $2,082? According to its rules, which Green agreed to, yes. But being right doesn’t mean you are right. And you could see the representative doing everything in her power to make things right by waiving the change fee and issuing a luggage voucher.

Still, an extra $2k because you’re following the law? That seems harsh for the most profitable airline in the world.

In a situation like this, it’s helpful to turn the tables. What would American do if, say, the FAA grounded a plane due to shoddy maintenance? Would it cover the hotel expenses for Green’s missed vacation? Would it refund a missed cruise? No. It would just refund the airfare or book him on a flight of its choosing.

That doesn’t seem fair, does it?

Well, you’re not going to like the outcome of this one. I asked American to consider this special case.

“We are not going to offer a refund for the difference of fare,” a representative told me. “We refunded the reissue fee, and provided a voucher for the bag fee. They would have had up to a year to use the original tickets, but, instead, purchased new tickets or fares for a different date of travel.”

And there you have it. Case dismissed. A questionable call, but what can you do?

Should American have refunded Gary Green's airfare?

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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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  • Alan Gore

    Last year we complained about change fees. This year’s pattern is that every one-day schedule change requires a new walk-up ticket.

    If there is any circumstance that should carry an exception, it should be court appearances. Today we know that if we get sick we have to dope ourselves up and fly with the flu, infecting the other passengers as it may, but we do that because it’s airline rules. But for court appearances, an ongoing trial isn’t going to wait for you.

    The populist tide this election is unstoppable. No matter whether we end up with Sanders or Trump, we’re going to have a more populist Congress next year because for the first time in history we have an anti-corporate mood in both party bases. And when a bill is passed to allow airline ticket exemptions for such things as sickness or court appearances, they’re hardly likely to stop there. The whole non-refundability concept will be scrapped. Think of it as mandatory travel insurance: everyone pays a little more, which has been popular demand anyway, but gets a decent amount of flexibility.

  • IgorWasTaken

    What I would do: Small Claims Court

    Especially if this happened in my home town.

    (That part wasn’t clear to me from the post – for example, was Green in a different town appearing as an expert witness. Though I’d suggest he give it a try regardless of where he lives/where this happened.)

    Imagine appearing before a judge with a letter from another judge saying what happened was beyond your control and asking the airline to accommodate you. Just a hunch, but I think the judge in Small Claims Court would be rather sympathetic to you – though, of course, even SMCourts are supposed to follow the law, etc.

  • Lindabator

    and the law is clear – when you change the outbound flight, it is a NEW ticket, not an exchange, and is priced at the current rate, with the old ticket used towards the new purchase with a $200 exchange fee. And since the FAA does NOT require an airline to refund or discount a ticket due to you not liking the cost, and since it is actually FOLLOWING the FAA regulations on ticketing/fare restrictions, there IS no legal case – sympathy does not trump the law, unfortunately. The fact that an airline MIGHT choose to waive the regulation does not mean they are required to.

  • AJPeabody

    One last shot: Get the judge to ORDER the airline to refund the money. See if American understands the power of a court order.

  • jae1

    It’s not clear from the description that they did apply the cost of the old ticket to the purchase of the new one. By inference they must have, or there wouldn’t have been a change fee, but it certainly isn’t clearly stated. If they didn’t, he should have received a refund for the cost of the original ticket, regardless of any forgiveness of the change fee and baggage fees.

  • MarkKelling

    AA was blaming the merger for its inability to do certain things last year. Now it is blaming the TSA for its understaffed baggage check in Miami (see article from a couple days ago). Why can’t they just do something without trying to blame the rest of the world?

    While it is true that AA followed the rules when reissuing the ticket in this case, they could be more flexible

  • Éamon deValera

    AA the only airline I’ve ever had to actually sue. I prevailed of course and I’ve never flown them since. I’ll crawl first.

  • Mel65

    I get that *he* couldn’t fly home, but had he sent his wife/child home on the original itinerary and then appealed for just HIS ticket, I’d have had more sympathy. The judge didn’t order his wife and child to stick around, and maybe they really really really LIKE being together and just couldn’t stand to be apart, but… for that much extra cost? I’d have sucked it up and said “I’ll see you the day after tomorrow, honey,” and sent them home. But, maybe that’s just me *shrug*.

  • Michael__K

    Funny how our lawmakers and their entire staffs in Washington never have this problem when their plans change. They get completely free changes, a dedicated reservation line, and an exemption from the rules against multiple/conflicting bookings.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/articles/2013-04-30/the-pampered-world-of-congressional-air-travel

  • MarkKelling

    Only he changed his flight. That is why only he is requesting a refund for only his ticket that had to be reissued. Wife and daughter had to pay to check luggage since he is the one with status on AA through his credit card and they were not flying together because only he changed his flight.

  • Michael__K

    It’s not “law”, it’s policy. Which happens to be waived 100% of the time for members of Congress and their staffs BTW.

  • Mel65

    Ahh somehow I missed that reading while on a telecon. That’s ONE expensive ticket then for one person.

  • mbods2002

    I voted no because his travel/hotel costs would have been reimbursed 100% if he had contacted the U.S. Attorney’s Office, with a Victim Witness staff member arranging travel and hotel. I don’t think it’s too late to request reimbursement, though he may not get the entire amount back. Not that I’m a know it all or anything, I just thought it sounded strange that he would have to pay his own way to be a court ordered witness so I Googled it….

  • Altosk

    I’m hoping that the Elliott staff can get some answers from the current candidates for President on these “perks” and how to deal with the ever-getting-worse airlines.
    I want to hear from both sides of the aisle on this one…

    (But please, I don’t want to hear about what body part Donald Trump is most proud of…was that a debate or a reality show last night..!??!?)

  • AAGK

    This seems a bit off to me. Also, why are the wife and daughter checking bags for a one day trip.

  • judyserienagy

    Now THIS is a situation that needs legal parameters. If a judge requires your presence and you need to change your flight, there should be no question that it just gets changed without fees. It’s difficult to believe that AA is so blindly stubborn, they should be forced to behave properly. The passenger had no choice; AA is just gouging him. Shame on them.

  • Éamon deValera

    Well, there is a lot left out. We don’t know if it is a state or federal court. We don’t know if he was an expert witness – who are paid- or a witnesses ordered to appear by the state for the state or by the state on behalf of the defendant.

    Since his wife and children were able to accompany him I’m going to wager a guess that he was an expert. It is not unusual for an expert to know when he will testify and be able to make concrete travel arrangements. Very seldom do they go awry, but once in a blue moon they can.

    If ordered to appear on behalf of the state then the state attorney’s office will reimburse (or occasionally prepay) reasonable travel costs. If the state had booked his travel I must venture a guess that they are afforded a different class of ticket that would allow changes or charge the state for the changes not the passenger.

    The state will never pay for family member travel.

    If he was an expert witness for the defendant the defendant’s attorney should pay if and only if it is in the agreement between expert and attorney. If he entered into an agreement to furnish his own travel he is up the creek.

  • just me

    Would you please give us the citation to the LAW you refer to?

  • mbods2002

    You raise excellent points! I have to quit taking these stories at face value…

  • KanExplore

    Certainly it would make sense for there to be a system whereby a court could issue an official document to the airline indicating the person’s court order to be present on a particular date conflicting with a nonrefundable ticket.

  • cate

    Having worked for a court for years, I think this is a court related expense, whether being billed to the defense or the DAs office if it is a criminal case, for him. His family is on their own for the additional airfare ticket expense.

  • IgorWasTaken

    Might that actually be a requirement of a contract between the airlines and Congress?

  • IgorWasTaken

    It’s DOT, not the FAA, that issues rules about such things.

    And there is a common law concept of force majeure, which is not directly applicable here, but which a court may apply as a matter of legal equity (if the small claims court in that state has authority in equity).

  • IgorWasTaken

    Yes, worth a shot.

  • cscasi

    Do the rest of the airlines allow required witnesses to make changes to their tickets without fees or is American the only one?

  • cscasi

    “In a situation like this, it’s helpful to turn the tables. What would American do if, say, the FAA grounded a plane due to shoddy maintenance? Would it cover the hotel expenses for Green’s missed vacation? Would it refund a missed cruise? No. It would just refund the airfare or book him on a flight of its choosing”
    We have cussed and discussed this over and over again. The airline meets its obligation by getting you to your final destination’ albeit late.
    That is what trip/travel insurance is for; for those who want to purchase it. If not, these things sometimes happen and that is just the way it is. Also, leaving early, giving yourself enough time to miss a connection (for whatever reason) or having to leave later because the original flight broke down, is something else to be considered. We have also discusses this here time and time again.

  • Blamona

    Having been a juror way too many times, why wouldn’t he have had an extra day to fly out? Why wouldn’t he have sent his wife and kid on their own and he could have stayed. He could have also billed the extra to the court (his part). Called mitigating damages!! Then I think AA could have been more better at refunding just his portion. Dwight and wife didn’t need to stay!

  • Nancy Nally

    A lot of commenters seem to be assuming that the flight was Mr Green returning home from a trip somewhere else to testify. But that’s not explicitly stated. I think it’s more likely, reading the article, that Mr Green was scheduled to testify on a certain date and had scheduled flights to leave on a trip with his family the next day. But his testimony was unexpectedly required for a 2nd day, messing with his travel plans. If that is the case, the court had nothing to do with his travel plans and would have been in no way responsible for them. The judge would be doing him a courtesy with the letter trying to assist him in fixing his problem that was caused by the extension. Frankly, if that is the case, he was taking a big risk with a non-refundable ticket the day after being scheduled to testify. Nothing ever goes as planned in a court case!

  • Nancy Nally

    Yeah but how big is his carry-on? Does it fit in the overhead bin or does he get forced to check it? ;-)

  • Carchar

    I thought they were starting out on a a trip but that he had to fly the next day, due to the court appearance.

  • Carchar

    His wife and kid did fly on their own, but now had to pay baggage fees because he wasn’t with them. (As explained to Mel65 by MarkKelling above.)

  • AAGK

    Oh- oops, I misunderstood this whole thing then. Well maybe the airline will waive the fee or, depending on his role in the case, either one of the parties, or the district attorney’s office (if it is criminal) will pay for his travel expenses. If you have a trip and get called for jury duty, the airline will let you switch, usually. It is unclear why a witness in a case would have to forfeit funds to appear. This makes less sense now, unless he had violated the judge’s instructions by booking a trip out of town in the first place.

  • Michael__K

    In many cases, yes, there is a government-negotiated refundable contract fare available. However it’s been widely reported that all the major airlines have dedicated phone lines specifically for members of Congress and their staffs through which they get free changes and other (non-contracted) perks even for non-refundable fares.

  • And American just emailed me to ask for me to vote for them the Freddie Awards! Yeah, right! They disgust me.

  • I love to hear this! Good for you!

  • JewelEyed

    Irrelevant, I’ll be shocked if his head fits in the seat.

  • BMG4ME

    Court cases are often delayed or last longer than expected. I would probably buy a non-refundable ticket myself in such circumstances however I would do so with the expectation that I was taking a risk that I would lose money by doing so (which should be the attitude of anyone buying a non-refundable ticket). They refunded the change fees which was a nice gesture that they didn’t have to do. Even Southwest would have done the same as American in this case, they don’t charge change fees but if you want to change to another flight, you have to pay the difference between what you paid and what it currently costs. I bet that had Gary bought a flexible ticket at the time he bought the refundable ticket, it would have cost far less than $2000. As he wasn’t prepared to accept the consequences of a delay in exchange for a bargain, he should have bought a more flexible ticket at the time of purchase.

  • RBXChas

    It could be a civil case, too, and he was a witness for the plaintiff(s) or the defendant(s). However, I’d guess that an expert witness probably would have built in enough time on the back end in case his services were needed for more time than originally planned.

  • RBXChas

    If he was going to book a non-refundable fare, he should have booked some extra time on the back end. Neither civil nor criminal trials are particularly good at staying on schedule, and I have to imagine that he was advised of this. I admit that I fly pretty much never, but if he booked a fare for the next night instead of the next morning, once he was done testifying, couldn’t he have shown up at the airport early and been on standby for an earlier flight without any fees, etc.?

  • BMG4ME

    It costs $75 according to this link

    https://www.aa.com/i18n/utility/sameDayTravel.jsp

    however in this case it wasn’t the same day, it was the next day. Even top tier elites can’t do that for free.

  • RBXChas

    Thank you for looking that up. Sorry, I was unclear; I meant that when he originally booked, he should have booked for the night after he expected to finish testifying as opposed to the morning after, or perhaps even the morning following that.

    $75 as a standby fee is still far better than what he paid, if he’d built in more time and then really wanted to catch an earlier flight.

  • BMG4ME

    I agree although it’s easy to be wise in hindsight! I suggest that people do what you said. If they finish a day early, they can try to convince an agent to let them fly early then if the worse comes to the worse you stay an extra day and enjoy your unplanned vacation night!

  • James

    And if the flight was scheduled before the court date?