American Airlines and LAN strand us after earthquake

By | August 11th, 2016

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.

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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.

They then escalated their complaints to both American Airlines and LAN Airlines using the company contacts information on our website.

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.

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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.

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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.

Did American Airlines offer Laura Hubelbank enough compensation?

View Results

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  • The poll question is ambiguous. Does “enough compensation” mean before or after the Chris intercession?

    Although making a fake reservation was a definite screwup on AA’s part, you can almost never get consequential damages (the lost salary in this case) from an airline.

  • James

    A 7.8 earthquake strike a South American country — a declared state of emergency — and the OP are upset that they had to pay a little more to flee the country?

  • M B

    Oh these poor people, on vacation and inconvenienced by an earthquake that killed hundreds, injured thousands and destroyed lives and they missed a day of work. Hopefully neither broke a nail…

  • Michael__K

    How does AA and LAN refusing to honor their contracts help or honor the cause of the dead or injured?

    If the passenger experienced tragic misfortune, would you expect AA/LAN to waive their contracts?

    Any travel problem is a “First World” problem relative to all the life and death tragedies and injustices in the world. Why would you waste any time reading this site and commenting to put down a customer today, when instead you could be reading about and supporting the victims of today’s tragic bridge collapse in Mumbai instead?

  • MarkKelling

    Where did they see the “confirmed” reservation online? Was it on the AA web site or the Lan web site? If it was only on the AA web site, that means nothing. I have had fully paid for confirmed reservations that the code share airline knew nothing about. It only matters if the operating airline knows you have a seat for which you should have a six character number for you can use to find yourself in the operating airline’s online system.

    I don’t see where Lan did anything wrong at all. They never got the reservation from AA so they knew nothing about these two passengers, and since the flight was oversold they most likely would not have sold a ticket directly to the OP anyway. They cannot be “involuntarily bumped” from a flight they never were booked on. Now if they want to go after AA for lying to them claiming they were booked on the flight, then I am all for that.

    Have they not filed with insurance yet? If not, why not? It is exactly these types of situations you file an insurance claim for. Although from what they originally claimed, it sounded more like they needed a lawyer.

    Finally, they should be happy they were only delayed one day because of the earthquake. It could have been several days or even weeks before they were able to find a flight home.

  • Michael__K

    Where did they see the “confirmed” reservation online? Was it on the AA web site or the Lan web site? If it was only on the AA web site, that means nothing. I have had fully paid for confirmed reservations that the code share airline knew nothing about.

    It may not be LAN’s mistake or responsibility in that case but it *is* AA’s mistake and AA’s responsibility.

    And it’s not a mistake that AA couldn’t prevent if its “agents took all measures that could reasonably required to avoid” the problem. Which means they are liable up to 4150 SDR in damages for the delay under the Montreal Convention.

  • Regina Litman

    I voted Yes because I decided not to quibble over $2. They were still owed $477 for their Tame tickets but only got $475. The other items have generally not been reimbursable for other posters and letter writers, so I didn’t expect them to be reimbursable here. The one regret is that they may find a great vacation deal for those miles they got in compensation only to find out that one or both of them falls/fall short by one day of having enough vacation days in which to take the trip. While some employers may advance vacation time or allow employees to take a day off without pay, others don’t. And taking an unpaid day off may negate the effect of the miles they would be using.

  • In a situation like that a passenger can expect to have to wait for a while and perhaps at the airport. Being screwed and then ignored by two different airlines is another matter.

  • mythsayer

    I’m sorry…$900 for a lost day of work? I WISH I made that kind of money. That’s, what, $4000 per week? Oh those poor people (if that really what they make per week). I’ve never made more than $5300 per MONTH, and I’m an attorney.

    Also, I’m confused. It says they spent $585 for the tickets…where did the $1100 and some come from? And the $585 isn’t the left over amount because the article says that was $477. So which is correct?

  • MarkKelling

    The $585 (rounded) was per person giving a total of $1171 (rounded). AA refunded the part of the original itinerary they did not get to fly due to the cancellation ($694) leaving the $477 which was later refunded by AA as well.

    And yes, some (lucky) people make that kind of money. And this was for two incomes I would have to assume so it is only $2000 each for the week. :-)

  • Steven Reed Sr.

    There was a natural disaster in the area, killing 650 people, leaving the country in a state of emergency, and these people are complaining that they missed a days work because they had to wait an extra day to get home? Id say they were lucky to get out as soon as they did, to me this smacks of the me first attitude that has infected the travel industry, Chris usually calls them the entitled or elitist, surprised this was even advocated for. Yes it looks like the airlines screwed up, but in the wake of a natural disaster that caused the closure of the airport and the cancellation of the flights some common sense needed to take place and I believe anyone would at that time know that they are not leaving on time as planned, so IMHO they got more than they deserved. A prime example of why travel insurance is a good idea for trips like this one.

  • Randy Culpepper

    They lost me with the denied boarding compensation request. They are not entitled to that on a few counts: they did not have confirmed seats; denied boarding statute only apples to flights originating in the USA; they’re requesting the maximum compensation allowed by law rather than share the amount that was supposedly paid for the LAN ticket

  • C Schwartz

    A code share or ticket transfer has to be confirmed by the airline actually flying the passengers. If LAN could/would confirm them I am not sure what AA could do. LAN cannot bump someone that does not have a confirmed seat to begin with. LAN may have suspended interline agreement because of natural disaster, ie an earthquake. AA offered them a flight days later which was too late for them. I have been stranded by my home airport being closed due to natural disaster and it was hard to get back once the airport opened, as other airlines did not want to interline, they wanted to take care of their own passengers.

  • C Schwartz

    I wonder if there employer actually deducted the wages from them.

  • Michael__K

    What I expect from AA is not to show the codeshare reservation as “Ticketed/Confirmed” unless the operating carrier (LAN in this case) has truly confirmed it.

    The flight was not overbooked at the time — there were still 2 seats available — so this could have been resolved if it was promptly addressed.

  • C Schwartz

    Honestly I cannot quite follow the chronology there — they say they were denied boarding by the LAN gate agent — and that the LAN gate agent told them they were oversold and then later in the narrative it says that LAN agent and the AA rep said there were 2 seats — I thought that the reason LAN may not have confirmed was the oversold issues. To get to a gate agent one has to get to a gate — so was there a ticket for the date? What about luggage? There is so much missing.

  • C Schwartz

    There is a lot missing here. First it says that a LAN gate agent denied them boarding saying that it was oversold. Did the passengers ever have a boarding pass for LAN? Did they check luggage? I think to be denied boarding one would have to have a boarding pass. And later it is written that there were two seats left, confirmed by AA and LAN. Is this before or after the LAN gate agent said it was oversold. I had to have a ticket changed to another airline over a year ago as the connecting airport was shut down to weather — and I called the new airline to make sure that they had me as confirmed. But I am a bit of a paranoid traveler, and it was a mess to be rebooked and I ended up getting home 24 hours later.

  • Michael__K

    The customer’s post in the forum thread linked at the end of the article has the chronology. To summarize: when they first tried to checkin they were told the flight was oversold and they could not get boarding passes. The flight did not checkin full however and there were 2 seats still available when checkin closed. But they could not get those seats because, according to LAN, the tickets were never “transferred” by AA, even though they had a confirmation from AA that they were “Ticketed” on the AA flight number. And the AA agent at the airport would not help them.

  • Lindabator

    And an earthquake is not something the airlines could control, which I am sure their employer would have understood

  • M B

    There are no contract terms and conditions nor any treaty provisions that provide for compensation due to a delay caused by force majeure. The passengers experienced just such a situation and made, in my opinion, an unreasonable claim for compensation.

    I waste my time reading this because I find these stories occasionally informative and helpful and sometimes amusing in my travels which include spending 2 weeks a year in a volunteer children’s medical clinic on Rusinga Island in Kenya.

  • James

    A typical salary for a software engineer in Silicon Valley is over $100l/year — that’s $400/day. At the high end it is more than double that.

    Of course, hoses start at a million, and renting a one-bedroom apartment is over $3000/month…

  • Michael__K

    The airline can control whether a “ticketed” reservation is actually ticketed.

    Their new flight checked in less than full — there were 2 seats available (read the forums) — and the only reason they couldn’t board was because AA goofed.

  • Michael__K

    The failure to get on AA7642 (operated by LAN) on April 17th had nothing to do with force majeure.

    AA confirmed and “ticketed” them on this flight. The flight was oversold but checked in less than full (2 seats unclaimed). The only reason they couldn’t board was because of AA’s error which AA’s agent at the airport would not fix.

    AA is liable for the subsequent delay (would have been 4 more days) per the Montreal Convention, up to the prescribed limit.

  • James

    I wonder if there employer actually deducted the wages from them.

    It depends — are they salaried or are they contracted? If one is working on a contract or consulting gig, then it isn’t a matter of getting the wages deducted, it is a matter of not being able to bill for the time.

    If salaried, it depends on the employer and the employer’s policies. It is conceivable that if they were out of time off, they’d lose a day’s pay. More likely, they’d end up losing a day of time off. If they budgeted all their time off, then at some point, they will have lost.

    My current employer would shrug, and I’d need to work a little harder to make up for the day. I’m paid to get things done, not sit at a desk. Others (including some former employers) would not have been as sympathetic.

  • Blamona

    I do believe work would understand with 650 persons killed that it might take days to get back home under the circumstances. They lost me when they wanted $2700 more–seriously? Unless they planned to donate it back to families whose family members died or lost homes, do think I’ll feel sorry for them? I really hate entitled people. Natural disasters happen, work understands.

  • cscasi

    ” 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.”
    That is an interesting statement from the American Airlines agent. Normally, it takes some time to get a confirmation from a code share airline once American has booked a ticket(s). I have gone through this several times with United when I am flying on another partner airline.
    “Hubelbank checked online and saved a screenshot showing ticketed status for herself and her husband on the LAN flight departing the next day.” This does not mean that LAN had confirmed the reservation and assigned them space on the flight. Whenever, I book through another airline, I always get the agent to give me the PNR for the airline I am flying on. Better yet, I always long onto the web site of the code share airline and confirm that my reservation is definitely there. Again, if their flight on LAN was truly confirmed and ticketed, there would have been a PNR available from LAN.
    Finally, the article further states, “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.” To me, that means American never transferred/endorsed the tickets to LAN, so there is no way LAN was going to allow them to board its flight.
    It was a mess from the start. But, that is why, especially in these cases, people need to check and double check everything to ensure things are right.
    Of course, this is all mute since they accepted what American Airlines gave them as compensation. But, just be aware for future reference.

  • joycexyz

    Right, no compensation for lost wages. People tend to cut it too close on the return trip. The day before going back to work is not a good idea–stuff happens (obviously). You need a cushion.

  • M B

    What they are owed would be determined by the appropriate agency or court. A statement that force majeure has nothing to do with it is open to interpretation. The standard for determining liability under the treaty is failure to make “reasonable” efforts to make accommodations. It could be just as easy to say it is reasonable to have a 4 day delay following a major earthquake. The passengers were refunded their unused fare and given a goodwill voucher. Otherwise they made it home safe and sound using their own resourcefulness which often becomes necessary in uncertain times.

  • Michael__K

    They received a “confirmation” stating that they were “ticketed” on a flight which operated and departed. That they were not permitted to board this flight had absolutely nothing do do with the earthquake. That is not “open to interpretation.”

  • mythsayer

    And when you make that kind of money, employers don’t usually deduct it from your pay because you get a salary. I’d seriously be wanting to see some proof of actual lost wages.

  • C Schwartz

    I think that AA did not bother to call LAN to check if they were taking the endorsed ticket. Delta will not take AA tickets and I would not be surprised if other airlines have dropped the agreement with AA. I had a ticket endorsed from LH to AF last year due to a weather issue at FRA. I called AF to verify that they had me confirmed in their system.

  • John Grier

    there was an earthquake where 645 people died. They were luck that their were any flights at all & the flight they wanted to get on was oversold.

  • John Grier

    yeh, lucky they didn’t die

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