Is this enough compensation for a partially flown flight?

By | December 4th, 2016

When her flight was canceled, Val Robinson expected a refund. Instead, she was threatened with a collection notice. 

It seems unfair — not to mention terrible customer service — for airlines to refuse to refund airfares (even nonrefundable ones) because of conditions over which passengers have no control. But them’s the breaks in the airline industry.

And it’s a warning to all air passengers, regardless of how well-traveled or knowledgeable about air travel they are: Know whether or not your tickets are nonrefundable before you buy them. And be aware that airlines don’t like to issue cash refunds – even when they’re responsible for canceling flights.

Robinson found that out the hard way when she booked a roundtrip flight on American Airlines from Sacramento, Calif., to Harrisburg, Penn., via Phoenix through Orbitz for herself and her husband, using her credit card.

Then American canceled both the Phoenix-to-Harrisburg and Harrisburg-to-Phoenix flights and issued vouchers to the passengers.

But the Robinsons didn’t want the vouchers because they don’t travel often. She contacted American Airlines and Orbitz to request a refund, but both companies refused her request because the tickets were nonrefundable.

Unfortunately, the next step Robinson took made her situation worse. She contacted her credit card company and disputed the charge for the tickets. The credit card company removed the charge.

Then Robinson heard from Expedia (the parent company of Orbitz). According to Expedia’s agent, when Robinson disputed the charge for the tickets on her credit card, “the terms and conditions of the purchase were broken” and Expedia would have to recharge her for the cost of the tickets.

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The agent added: “Failure to collect payment may result in your account being sent to collections and possibly blocked from future purchasing on our sites.”

At that point, Robinson asked our advocates for help in getting Expedia to drop its threat of collection action, asking: “How could Expedia collect on something I have not used?” (Our website’s contacts section includes executive contact information for both American Airlines and Orbitz.)

Her confusion is understandable based on a reading of American Airlines’ contract of carriage, which holds that

In the event the refund is required because of American’s failure to operate on schedule or refusal to transport, the following refund will be made directly to you. …
If the ticket is partially used, the refund will be the difference between the fare paid and the fare for the transportation actually used as determined by the applicable rules.

As American Airlines, not Robinson, was responsible for the cancellation, Robinson thought that this provision of the contract of carriage should apply to her situation even though her tickets were nonrefundable. American disagreed. And Orbitz took American’s side.

Orbitz’s terms of use contains the following provision:

You agree to abide by the terms and conditions of purchase imposed by any supplier with whom you elect to deal, including, but not limited to, payment of all amounts when due and compliance with the supplier’s rules and restrictions regarding availability and use of fares, products, or services.

So in Orbitz’s view, by disputing the charge for nonrefundable tickets, Robinson violated this provision of its terms of use.

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Because of Robinson’s confusion, our advocates reached out to both American Airlines and Orbitz on her behalf. Although American reiterated that her tickets were nonrefundable, it agreed to issue a refund to Robinson for the Phoenix-to-Harrisburg and Harrisburg-to-Phoenix portions of her tickets through Orbitz, which was in the form of – you guessed it – vouchers.

Should Val Robinson have been issued a refund instead of vouchers for the unused portions of her tickets?

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