When Milton Dortch and his wife planned their trip from Atlanta to New York in December 2015, Dortch booked their flights on Delta Air Lines, using his American Express SkyMiles credit card. On their day of travel a series of violent thunderstorms caused delays in the southeastern U.S., and Dortch arrived at his destination 10 hours late.
What Dortch did next will surprise you. The outcome of his story should serve as a warning about the need to know both your rights and the rights of the company with whom you choose to do business.
Dortch signed up for Delta’s electronic notifications of flight delays “years ago,” and says that the service had always notified him of flight delays. The service didn’t notify him anything was wrong on that day, so he and his wife made their way to the airport.
I’ll let Dortch tell us what happened next.
We got to the airport, checked our luggage and again we inquired as to the flight being on time considering the weather and were told, once again, everything was on-time. We got to the gate and the board showed on-time and we were told everything was on-time despite the obvious weather conditions.
Once the departure time had passed we were finally told the flight was delayed due to weather. We then waited in the airport for 8+ hours and during this entire ordeal neither of us were never [sic] once contacted by Delta via our cell phones: neither by ext nor email.
Ten hours after the original arrival time on their tickets, Dortch and his wife finally arrived in New York. They stayed for the original duration of the trip and used the return portion of their tickets to get back to Atlanta three days later. Dortch did not report to us that there was any delay in this flight.
Fifteen days after his return flight landed in Atlanta, Dortch filed a credit card dispute with American Express for the full cost of both his and his wife’s tickets ($318 each) plus an additional $45 per ticket, which seems to be for seat assignments.
In case you missed it, Dortch asked for a full refund of his round trip tickets — not for half the cost, given that only his outbound flight was delayed.
When filing a dispute on a credit card, companies require that you provide a reason for your claim that you should be refunded. Dortch’s complaint was filed under the option “Other (Damaged, Dissatisfied with Service, Paid by Other Means),” and asserted that he was dissatisfied with Delta’s failure both to advise him of the delay and to deliver him to New York on time.
Here’s the first shock of this story: American Express sided with Dortch and refunded his money.
But before you Google the website for the last airline that delayed your flight, there’s more to the story. According to Dortch, Delta never responded to the dispute from American Express.
A credit card company typically gives a company 30 days to respond. In this case American Express seems to have given Delta a bit more time, but the complaint was resolved within 90 days after Dortch’s original flight.
So why are we talking about this case more than 15 months after the delay that caused this headache in the first place? That’s the second shock of this story: Delta hired a collection agency to go after Dortch in January of this year.
Thanks to the Fair Credit Billing Act, consumers have the right to dispute a charge that they feel to be some kind of billing error, including:
- unauthorized charges
- charges with the wrong date or amount
- math errors
- failure to post payments and credits
- failure to send bills to your current address (when the company has it at least 20 days before the end of the billing period)
- charges for which you requested an explanation or proof of purchase
- charges for goods and services you didn’t accept or that weren’t delivered as agreed
But the intent of the the Fair Credit Billing Act is to help even the playing field for consumers, not to allow consumers to profit from its protection, getting both the product and the money, sometimes known as “friendly fraud.”
The reality is that Dortch and his wife used the flights they purchased — both to New York and back to Atlanta. The delay of the outbound flight was not within Delta’s control. As noted in its Conditions of Carriage:
Delta shall have no liability if the flight cancellation, diversion or delay was due to force majeure. As used in this rule, “force majeure” means actual, threatened or reported: (1) Weather conditions or acts of God (2) Riots, civil unrest, embargoes, war, hostilities, or unsettled international conditions (3) Strikes, work stoppages, slowdowns, lockout, or any other labor-related dispute (4) Government regulation, demand, directive or requirement (5) Shortages of labor, fuel, or facilities (6) Any other condition beyond Delta’s control or any fact not reasonably foreseen by Delta
I fly nearly 100,000 miles per year, so while I understand the frustration of flight delays, holding an airline responsible for weather issues is unreasonable. In fact, I am rather fond of a saying I once heard a pilot use, “It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than in the air wishing you were on the ground.”
While Dortch won his initial battle and received a favorable ruling from AmEx and a refund for the flights he took, the war came back to him in the form of the collection agency demanding payment in full. He appealed both to his credit card company and to Delta for help, claiming that the chargeback should be the final word and he should owe nothing to Delta. The airline refused to intervene, unsurprisingly, and American Express told Dortch it had already ruled on this charge, refunded the money, and closed the case.
I disagree with the decision that American Express initially made: Dortch took the flights, the airline got him where he was going, and the delay was out of the airline’s control. But the decision was made in his favor, so I was surprised to learn that a collection agency could be hired to collect the money anyway.
In fact, the Fair Credit Reporting Act doesn’t address the responsibilities of a company to respond to a chargeback claim, nor does it prohibit a company from hiring a collection agency to collect money directly from the consumer after a chargeback is issued. A company’s ability to return to a customer for payment after a credit card company has ruled in the consumer’s favor weakens consumer protections the Act was meant to address.
Dortch also reported the collection agency and Delta Air Lines to the Better Business Bureau and the Attorney General of the State of Georgia. The Better Business Bureau referred the matter to Delta, which had already refused to help — and refused again. The Georgia Attorney General’s office also forwarded the complaint to Delta Air Lines. The Aviation Consumer Protection Division received a copy of the complaint from the Georgia Attorney General’s office, as well.
The list of things done wrong in this case is a long one: Dortch should never have filed a chargeback; Delta should have responded to the initial inquiry from American Express; Delta should not have hired a collection agency when the decision against it was its own fault; American Express and Delta, both at fault for the original chargeback decision, should have been more helpful with the collection agency.
Without assistance from any of the companies or agencies he had contacted, Dortch reached out to us. Had he contacted the list of executives we list on our site for Delta Air Lines when the problem initially happened, he might have had a different (and quicker) outcome. And we might have been more inclined to help if he weren’t asking for a refund on flights he actually took.
Our advocates told Dortch this is not the kind of case we would mediate. He finally negotiated a settlement with the collection agency for approximately 75 percent of the value of Delta’s claim. In the end, Dortch got his flights at a discounted price — but at what cost?