Hey American Airlines, where’s the refund for my canceled flight?

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When Kristen Nordlund’s flight is canceled, she’s promised a refund. But it never arrives. What now?

Question: I recently booked a last-minute flight with American Airlines because my father was scheduled to have surgery the following day. American canceled my flight 20 minutes prior to boarding. At the gate, I was told that I could either fly to another city or go to a different gate if I wanted a refund.

I went to the second gate and was told that I would receive an email confirming my refund. The next day I called American because I had not received the confirmation. I was told to look in my spam folder. It was not there.

I called the airline again, and the person I spoke with told me that American didn’t send emails confirming refunds, and didn’t understand why other American employees had told me to expect one.

I never received a refund, and, after calling the airline a couple of more times and being told that it takes a while to be refunded, I initiated a dispute with my credit card company. American now claims that I’m not entitled to a refund because I bought a nonrefundable ticket. Can you help? — Kristen Nordlund, Plano, Texas

Answer: I’m sorry to hear about your father, and I hope his condition has improved. If American Airlines canceled your flight, it owes you an immediate, no-questions-asked refund. Instead, it gave you the runaround, followed by a denial.

What’s particularly galling is that you bought a last-minute ticket, the kind normally reserved for business travelers who are on an expense account. Those are usually twice as expensive as the advance-purchase tickets bought by everyone else, sometimes much more. Often, they are refundable — not that it makes any difference.

If an airline fails to operate a flight, it must refund your money. No “ifs,” “ands” or “buts.”

Instead of filing a credit card dispute, I might have taken it up the chain of command at American first. I list the names, numbers and email addresses of American’s executives on my website.

Even a cursory review of your case by a manager would have shown that American was in the wrong. Had that not worked, you could have appealed your case to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Aviation Consumer Protection Division, which could have helped the airline see the error of its ways.

A credit card dispute is a last resort for a refund problem like yours. It’s a process that appears to be fairly automated, and it generally favors the airline. For example, if your ticket is nonrefundable and the flight isn’t canceled, all an airline must do to prevail is show the credit-card-dispute department its fare rules, and it wins.

I contacted American Airlines on your behalf. A representative investigated your claim and blamed the refund problem on an “agent error.” American refunded your ticket.

Is American Airlines' refund process fair to consumers?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I can only speak for myself but my refunds have always been processed and back on my card in under a week, no muss, no fuss.

  • backprop

    This is one of those types of clear-cut cases where it can be helpful (if you’re so inclined) to tweet or message the airline through Facebook. I’ve had several resolved very quickly by doing so.

  • PsyGuy

    I would of sued them in small claims court asking for punitive damages for deceptive trade practices. They took your money, didn’t deliver the service and then claimed to keep your money, that’s fraud. Mistakes can be expensive, and American should pay for it’s “agent errors”.

  • http://www.thewomenstravelgroup.com/ Phyllis Stoller

    I think that since your credit card payment is your half of a contract, and American broke their side, you may without feeling aggressive dispute your payment at any time you wish.

  • SnowWheet

    I would have gone as far as contacting the airline by email, but after that I also would have initiated a credit card dispute (feeling that they already wasted enough of my time.)
    Chris, did you disagree with this tactic only due to the possibility of it being denied, or are there other pitfalls that may occur with these disputes?

  • MarkKelling

    First it is surprising that a last minute flight would still be non-refundable. But glad AA eventually did provide the refund. I think that many cases like this happen because the airline (or other company) thinks the customer will either just forget about the refund or feel it is not worth the time to pursue it. If enough customers give up on the refund process that means more profit for the company.

    I have never had an airline not provide a refund for cancelled flights in a timely manner. CO/UA has always posted expected refunds within 48 hours. Other airlines have always done so within 5 business days. But then I have never taken an agent’s word that there would be an email sent later and have received something in writing stating the amount of the refund.

  • Raven_Altosk

    I hope they gave her more than just the refund. Some goodwill is deserved here for holding her money hostage while the inept workers played the “idunno” game.

  • MarkKelling

    The merchant can send the bill to a collections agency if the credit card sides with the customer and withholds payment.

  • Liz

    I’ve booked a lot of last-minute flights recently, and I’ve found a lot of decent non-refundable fares. They were generally one to three hundred less than the refundable ones. That being said, if I knew that my dad was having surgery, I’d spring for the refundable ticket. Complications invariably arise and things change when someone is in the hospital. I feel like we hear this story all the time– although OP clearly did deserve a refund.

    Alternately, when you’re in a situation like this, book a one-way ticket! I flew out my boyfriend when my mom was in ICU, and only scheduled the outbound flight. She passed away the day he arrived, and I was grateful I hadn’t booked him back home yet– the funeral ended up being later than expected, and change fees would have been more than the ticket value.

  • emanon256

    I personally think this was a one-off instance. I think most people get their refunds promptly. Every once in a while the airline screws up and then we need Elliott to fix things.

  • Nigel Kirk

    “inept” and “I dunno” describes the situation. Both due to the lack of training. I recall seeing articles on the agent function being outsourced. That will only make it worse.

  • tio2girl

    Well, yeah, but Chris’s point is that disputing the charge through the credit card company might not be the fastest or most effective way to actually get the money back.

  • emanon256

    Lately I have seen a lot of airlines open up all fare classes 72-24 hours before a flight if there are remaining seats. Because most of the heavily discounted fares have 7 day or greater advanced booking requirements they are not available, but there are still some pretty decent discounted fares that are non-refundable, if there are seats. Still not a risk I am willing to take in case the flight is full.

    Like you, I have almost always gotten a refund on a canceled flight within 48 hours. I only had one exception, which was one time on Frontier. It took almost 45 days and I had to call several times. It was quite annoying. But all of the other refunds I have requested on Frontier came through promptly. I hope they dont’ do this intentionally, but perhaps they have some calculation as to who they think will ignore ti an try it on them.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Was it ever truly determined that it was non-refundable? Whoever told the OP that also totally missed the fact that the flight had been canceled so their input on anything else would be suspect at best.

  • Lindabator

    She should have just gone online – easy peasy.

  • Lindabator

    BUT that does not guarantee your credit card will eventually side with you.

  • Lindabator

    or just go online – makes it easy.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    A judge would not and could not grant punitive damages under these facts. He or she would see this as a breach of contract and award the refund plus statutorily allowable costs, e.g. the filing fee and the process server fee. Judges are loathe to permit fraud claims without a credible allegation of intentionality at the time the transaction is entered into.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I think Chris’ point, at least in this article, is that a credit card dispute is a suboptimal strategy, and this should be a last resort. The reasons the MarkKelling, Lindabator, etc. articulated are 100% spot on.

  • MarkKelling

    Great advice for most situations since you don’t have to hang on the phone for uncountable hours.

    But it is possible she was not a member of the frequent flyer program for AA. If you are not, I don’t know how you would request a refund online from them since you have to log in with your frequent flyer number to do that.

  • emanon256

    You can do it here without an AA account.

    https://prefunds.aa (dot) com/refunds/

  • BMG4ME

    I agree, this seems very unusual. I would have called the airline, I had a similar issue with a canceled award ticket, complicated by it being an AA award on a US flight. No issues or delay getting miles back.

  • BMG4ME

    It’s interesting that do many people in the comments give the airlines the benefit of the doubt yet the voting is totally opposite.

  • y_p_w

    Most of these transactions can be done with the confirmation number and name, just like checking in without an account. Maybe the credit card number too.

  • Mark Carrara

    Is it any wonder the world looks at our litigation happy society and laughs? How about getting a gun and shooting the gate agent? That would be the American way also.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    I’m not surprised. There is often a silent majority that reads this site and votes in the polls.

  • Mark Carrara

    I don’t think it was a mistake, just a new source of income for airlines. Schedule a flight sell lots of nonrefundable tickets then cancel the flight. When the passenger complains tell them that they had bought a nonrefundable ticket so no refunds.

  • Rebecca

    Outsourced = scripting. The agents overseas are literally not allowed to deviate from a list of “scripts” they can use. If they so much as use a sentence not on the approved list, they are fired. Seriously. I trained and managed in a call center that moved some functions overseas. The customer service impact is supposedly worth it, according to the actuaries. In reality, it makes it impossible to find someone to help because they truly aren’t allowed to, even the “supervisors.”

  • Cybrsk8r

    Yea, and any credit card that would side with the airline in a situation like this, would lose me as a customer in about 30 seconds

  • John Keahey

    It’s infuriating that the airline discovers “agent error” only when Chris calls, and not when researching/corresponding with the customer. Infuriating.

  • Helio

    It is a good question. An agent told her she could receive a refund. Maybe this was the agent mistake – the agent wrongly told her that a non-refundable ticket could be refunded.

    And I’m still guessing, in order to avoid bad press, the airline refunded the ticket.

  • Helio

    Then I’m the opposite – I read, sometimes comment, but rarely vote ;-)

  • Extramail

    Reminded me the same thing happened to my daughter with American and I need to make sure she got her refund. She also paid for a “special” seat and I want to make sure the got refunded too.

  • Extramail

    The customer shouldn’t have to do a thing. It should be automatic. Flight manifest goes to a return payment department and refunds are processed. In our computer sophisticated world, it seems like a no brainer.

  • MarkKelling

    I agree 100% and that has been my experience for every flight I have ever been on that was cancelled and I was not accommodated.

  • AH

    if i had to fly ASAP, i’d buy any ticket i could get! maybe she did luck out and get a non-refundable, but under the circumstances, i don’t think she cared, and certainly wasn’t going to go to all the time of checking out one-way tickets, comparable fares, etc.
    she’s in the DFW area where AA is the major carrier, so she took what she could get.

  • LonnieC

    What am I missing? It was the airline that cancelled, not the OP. How can it claim the ticket is non-refundable? I thought that non-refundable only bit the purchaser if he/she cancelled, not the airline. Why should the refund-ability of the ticket even matter here?

  • PsyGuy

    Id sue in Dallas (since this is American airlines) and have a jury trial, Judges may be loath to grant such damages, but juries are not.

    Aside, I have had judges personally grant punitive damages against collection agencies that engage in fraud in violation of the the FDCPA.

  • PsyGuy

    Mistakes like these don’t happen outside of our “profits at all costs” society. In Japan this would not have happened. In Europe if this did happen regulators would have quickly and easily stepped in to secure the refund.

  • PsyGuy

    My credit card company provides a temporary credit within 24 hours to my account usually within an hour. How is that not fast?

  • PsyGuy

    You can dispute the bill with the credit card agency as well.

  • PsyGuy

    Aren’t the supervisors just the agent next to them?

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Fdcpa is a statutory scheme with specific remedies. It’s not a beach of contract matter. These facts as laid out here do not, as a matter of law, constitute fraud. Accordingly a jury should never be given fraud as a possibility for consideration. If they do, the attorney screwed up royally.

    Edited. I should explain what I meant by a judge wouldn’t permit a fraud claim. That means that the jury would not be given a fraud instruction to consider as a possible verdict.

  • tio2girl

    That doesn’t mean that the dispute will ultimately be settled in your favor, as Chris and others have pointed out.

  • Rebecca

    No, they normally have a dedicated line they transfer to. The thing is, all the agents on the overseas supervisor line are is employees that have been there a while and have proven they don’t ever deviate from the script. They aren’t actually supervisors, in the sense that they can make any decisions or override anything. If a customer wants/deserves something outside of the exact matrix of resolutions (or something unusual that isn’t covered in the procedure), they call the actual supervisor line in the US, where employees are able to make real decisions. The problem with this is that they are judged on how many times they escalate to a real supervisor in the US, and are penalized for doing so. So they will do everything in their power not to get a real supervisor with decision making authority and the ability to have a conversation that isn’t read off of a flowchart on the line. Again, they have to follow the rules exactly, down to a flowchart.

  • Mel65

    I thought “non-refundable” meant that I couldn’t change MY MIND and ask for a refund; not that the airline could cancel my flight and refuse to refund the ticket. Am I not reading this story and the comments correctly here? Admittedly, I’ve had a glass of wine, but…

  • PsyGuy

    So its not the person next to them it’s further away, but they still don’t have any supervisory authority beyond the entry level person you talk too? Do the supervisors even have a different, or better, script with some other options available to them?

  • PsyGuy

    I think I’ve had one dispute that was with enterprise that was not settled in my favor.

  • Rebecca

    Normally, no, they don’t have any more authority than the person that’s transferring. Honestly, they just hope you’ll get sick of hearing the same thing over and over and give up. Sometimes, you just have to ask for a person in the US, but in my experience, that tends to backfire. Your best bet is to hang up, and press the option for the Spanish line. All of those agents are in the US, are generally cross trained, and will get you a supervisor in the US. They send calls there routinely when the English line is backed up, so just pretend you don’t know how you got there and start speaking English. I have done this successfully many times.

  • Meredith Putvin

    What Chris is saying is exhaust all other avenues first before going for the most risky option. CC Disputes are a tactic of last resort. Yes, it is still on the table, but in this case a calm appeal to a manager and running it up the flag pole is more effective.