Should American Airlines compensate us for an electrical problem?

Ivan Cholakov /
By | December 4th, 2016

David Rolon and nine family members booked a trip on American Airlines from Philadelphia to Puerto Rico for a family reunion. But after their flight was delayed and then canceled, they had to make other arrangements. Now Rolon wants American to pay.

When your flight is delayed and then canceled, can your airline just leave you stranded? What are the air carrier’s obligations, and what, really, are you entitled to? If you’re a U.S. domestic traveler, you won’t like the answer.

Rolon’s flight was initially delayed by an electrical problem on their aircraft. Problems like that happen, and no one wants to risk flying in a plane that has something wrong in its systems. But those repairs can take time.

In this case, the time it took to get the plane airworthy led to yet another problem. There are safety rules that limit the number of duty hours in a day for flight crews. Those duty hours include the time the crew sits around waiting for repairs such as electrical problems.

Airlines are required to make sure that flights can be completed within the time periods set by those rules. By the time the plane was ready and the passengers had finally boarded, the crew realized that they would exceed the duty hours limit during the flight. So the flight was canceled and the passengers had to disembark. All of that took seven hours.

Then, says Rolon, American just made things worse.

“After waiting in line for an additional three hours, we received a 30-second response from the customer service representative stating that there were no other flights available to Puerto Rico for several days,” he says. “When we asked about vouchers for other flights, we were told that there was nothing that American Airlines could do for us and that we would need to make our own arrangements and submit a claim afterwards. We were left scrambling and on our own.”

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Any of us who have gone through similar situations know how annoying and frustrating it can be to waste so much time waiting around the airport and to be unable to do anything about it.

You would think that the airline would want to help their customers. Rolon expected he would at least get some assistance in finding an alternative flight to his destination. But he was dealing with American Airlines, which, so far this year, has had more complaints on our site than the next four air carriers combined.

Rolon’s family finally found flights on two other airlines. But the family had to split up, with some of them having to drive from Philadelphia to Newark, N.J. for a flight with available seats.

American said they would refund the airfare for the canceled flight. However, he also wants additional compensation to the tune of $5,401 for alternate airfare and car rental costs. On top of that, he wants travel vouchers for future round-trips for each of his family members to compensate for the way they were treated. He contacted American, which declined his additional request. Now he is asking us for help.

But what is Rolon really entitled to? If you look at American’s conditions of carriage, the answer is nothing other than a refund of the unused portion of his ticket. Their conditions of carriage have a “force majeure” clause which limits their liability for issues beyond their control:

American may, in the event of a force majeure event, without notice, cancel, terminate, divert, postpone or delay any flight or the right of carriage or reservation of traffic accommodations without liability except to issue an involuntary refund. The involuntary refund will be made in the original form of payment in accordance with involuntary refund rules for any unused portion of the ticket.

Their list of force majeure events covers “any government regulation, demand or requirement.” That would include the rules covering flight crew duty hours. American’s position is that the cancellation resulted from something beyond their control and, therefore, they have no liability other than refunding a portion of the ticket. Too bad, passenger. You’re on your own.

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It would be a different story if this had been a trip that originated or ended in one of the European Union countries. The EU has a consumer protection law for air travelers known as EU 261. Passengers on such a flight would have been entitled to additional compensation under that rule. It specifies how much an air carrier must pay based on the flight distance and the length of the delay.

Unfortunately, air passengers on domestic U.S. trips don’t have those protections. We are only entitled to whatever the airlines say we are entitled to based on their own, nonnegotiable conditions. When you buy your ticket you are accepting their terms and conditions.

I fully believe that Rolon has good reason to be angry over a full day wasted and the lack of help from the airline’s agents. One could argue that American should do better by him and the other passengers. But is the additional compensation he wants reasonable? And how likely is the airline to agree?

What do you think? Should we take this case?

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Update (12/7): While waiting for us to decide whether to take this case, Rolon followed our suggestions and wrote a good letter to the American contacts who responded directly to him with a promise of vouchers to cover his additional costs.

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