Melanie Walker was kind enough to give up her family’s seats on an overbooked American Airlines flight from Philadelphia to Manchester, England.
Or so she thought.
In fact, her kindness was repaid with “awful treatment” by an airline employee. Should our advocates help her get compensated for being bumped from the “bumped” list?
Walker and her family were waiting to board their flight home from Philadelphia when American asked for volunteers to take a later flight. It offered $1,000 travel vouchers per person. Walker jumped at the chance for $4,000 in “free” travel.
Why would an airline make such an offer? Airlines maximize profits by flying with full aircraft, so they oversell their planes in case there are “no-shows.” In this case, the flight was oversold, and there weren’t enough no-shows. In order to avoid being fined for bumping passengers, airlines reward passengers with vouchers for future travel to volunteers willing to take a later flight.
Here’s the Department of Transportation requirement they’re trying to avoid:
If the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to arrive at your destination between one and two hours after your original arrival time (between one and four hours on international flights), the airline must pay you an amount equal to 200% of your one-way fare to your final destination that day, with a $650 maximum.
If the substitute transportation is scheduled to get you to your destination more than two hours later (four hours internationally), or if the airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you, the compensation doubles (400% of your one-way fare, $1,300 maximum).
If your ticket does not show a fare (for example, a frequent-flyer award ticket or a ticket issued by a consolidator), your denied boarding compensation is based on the lowest cash, check or credit card payment charged for a ticket in the same class of service (e.g., coach, first class) on that flight.
These fines can add up quickly for a flight that is oversold by a few seats, so naturally American made Walker a seemingly generous offer.
“We were in America visiting a friend with non-Hodgkins lymphoma,” Walker says. “When we were told we would be used as volunteers we were overjoyed because we could now visit again. Then, to have it taken away was something I still can’t understand. And for it to happen so unfairly and with such awful treatment made it all even worse. To us we lost $4,000 that night and a chance to see our friend again.”
The “awful treatment” allegedly came at the hands of a gate agent who told Walker and her family to board the flight and that they “did not matter.” He then gave the travel vouchers to another family.
“He humiliated us and then lied about taking us to one side to sort things out, when he was in fact boarding us,” Walker says. “Under the guise of making things OK for us to walk away from the gate, he just led us down the jetway to the plane and ordered us to board. Then in an action that can only be described as spiteful, he offered the standby passengers an upgrade to business class, and in front of a planeload of people, he told us to get to our original seats at the back of the plane. Let me emphasize that we at all times treated all the staff with courtesy and respect.”
Walker wrote to American, the “codeshare partner” of British Airways, which had sold her the tickets. American’s customer service agent offered a $100 travel voucher per person as a gesture of goodwill.
Walker then reached out to our advocates. Unfortunately, American did not respond in a positive way.
“We are not going to provide any additional vouchers for a flight they were scheduled on/flew on,” said an American representative. “They did volunteer to take a later flight. However, we needed five volunteers, so we took one family of five, instead of four and breaking up another family to get one more. The act of volunteering does not guarantee that you will not travel as scheduled. Again, they flew on the flight they paid for and were ticketed for.”
American’s conditions of carriage don’t address how the volunteer process is handled. Indeed, Walker’s family took the flight on which they were originally booked.
Unfortunately, it was a painful way to learn a lesson about airline overbooking. Nevertheless, was there a better way for American and its agents to have handled the situation? Walker thinks so and feels that she and her family were not compensated enough for the humiliation they suffered at the hands of American’s agents.