Laura Hubelbank wasn’t surprised when American Airlines canceled her flight from Guayaquil, Ecuador, to Miami. Earlier that day, a devastating earthquake had killed over 650 people in Ecuador, leaving the country in a state of emergency.
But she was surprised when American Airlines wouldn’t help her and her husband get home on time — and neither would its oneworld alliance partner, LAN Airlines (now part of LATAM Airlines).
The Hubelbanks’ story involves the airline practice of codesharing, or flights sold by one airline and operated by another. It raises the question of which airline partner in a codesharing arrangement has responsibility for rebooking passengers when a codeshare flight has been canceled.
The Hubelbanks were scheduled to fly back to the U.S. on American Airlines on the night of the earthquake. There was no American Airlines agent on duty at the Guayaquil airport, so Hubelbank called American Airlines’ customer service number for assistance. The agent who took her call booked her and her husband on a LAN Airlines flight for the following morning and assured her that their reservations were fully confirmed and ticketed, and the Hubelbanks would merely need to check in with LAN the following day. Hubelbank checked online and saved a screenshot showing ticketed status for herself and her husband on the LAN flight departing the next day.
But when the Hubelbanks arrived at the Guayaquil airport the following day, they were denied boarding by the LAN gate agent, who told them that not only was their flight oversold, but that they were not actually ticketed on the flight. Despite the American Airlines agent and the screenshot indicating otherwise, American Airlines still “held” the Hubelbank’s reservations and had never “transferred” them to LAN.
The Hubelbanks then spent the next hour rushing around the airport seeking help from American Airlines and LAN to secure seats on the flight they had been told the night before they had confirmed tickets on. Although LAN’s agent told them and the American Airlines agent on duty that there were two seats available on the flight they thought they had booked, the American Airlines agent refused to transfer the tickets to LAN. Unfortunately, the Hubelbanks were not permitted to board the flight. And the next available flight American Airlines could book the Hubelbanks on was not scheduled to depart for four days. American offered the Hubelbanks no other options and refused to book them on any flights operated by a non-partner airline.
In order to get home, the Hubelbanks spent $585 on airline tickets on Tame Airlines, a nonpartner airline, as well as the cost of meals. They arrived home a day later than originally scheduled and lost a day of work. Once at home, the Hubelbanks filled out the online complaint forms for both American Airlines and LAN, but both airlines ignored their complaints.
Unfortunately, this attempt to self-advocate was unsuccessful. LAN responded with “your reservation was not confirmed on LATAM flight 538 from Guayaquil to New York for Sunday, April 17, 2016,” and refused to take any responsibility for the Hubelbanks’ involuntarily denied boarding situation. American issued the Hubelbanks a refund of $694 for the unused portions of their tickets and two $300 credits for their inconvenience. But the credits expire in one year, and the Hubelbanks have no plans to travel during that time. Also, using the credits would void the travel insurance coverage offered by the credit card the Hubelbanks used to purchase the tickets, meaning they would not be able to recover any costs for which the credit card’s travel insurance carrier would otherwise compensate them.
So they turned to our advocates for assistance instead.
The Hubelbanks asked to be compensated $4,060, which would cover:
- $477 — The remaining cost of the Tame Airlines flight ($1,171 minus $694 that was already issued)
- $71 — Meal expenses resulting from the delay
- $912 — Value of lost wages because of the missed day of work
- $2,700 — Standard compensation for airline passengers ($1,350 per passenger) who experience a delay of four or more hours resulting from being involuntarily bumped from an overbooked flight.
As the flight was international, the Hubelbanks’ situation would be covered by Article 22 of the Montreal Convention, which limits the liability of airlines to 4,150 Special Drawing Rights in cases of delayed flights. But this is only enforceable if a passenger sues an airline. Otherwise, the airline will default to its own contract of carriage to determine its own liability. Also, airlines don’t give reimbursements for lost work time or wages.
American’s contract of carriage holds that:
When cancellations and major delays are experienced, you will be rerouted on our next flight with available seats. If the delay or cancellation was caused by events within our control and we do not get you to your final destination on the expected arrival day, we will provide reasonable overnight accommodations, subject to availability.
And LAN’s contract of carriage provides that
If necessary (including, but not limited to acts of God or force majeure), the Transporter, you [sic] can cancel, be replaced by other carriers and / or change the aircraft intended for the operation and / or alter or omit stops indicated on the ticket if necessary. The Carrier does not assume responsibility for ensuring the connections contracted by a passenger with a third party.….
In the event that a flight there are more passengers with confirmed reservations than available spaces provided they have completed the formalities of check-in with the minimum time required, the Carrier will ask for volunteers to surrender their confirmed in exchange quota compensation agreed. If not enough volunteers were found and were to deny boarding to passengers against their will, these passengers will be entitled to benefits prescribed by the applicable legislation.
But by refusing to transfer the Hubelbanks’ tickets to LAN, American Airlines failed to meet this provision of its contract of carriage. LAN violated its contract of carriage by refusing to compensate the Hubelbanks at all or take any responsibility for overselling their flight. And both airlines’ ignoring the complaint forms submitted by the Hubelbanks was very poor customer service.
Our advocates first directed Hubelbank to our forums, and then contacted American Airlines on their behalf. American has offered to refund $475 of the Tame Airlines ticket costs, as well as 10,000 miles as compensation for the other costs incurred by the Hubelbanks because of the delay. The Hubelbanks have accepted this offer from American Airlines.