Nothing says “I’m sorry” like airline miles

Not something special in the air. / Photo by Simon Sees - Flickr
Question: My family of four flew from Chicago to Salt Lake City on American Airlines during spring break. About a half-hour into our outbound flight, we were told that the landing gear did not come up and that we had to return to O’Hare.

Once we landed, we were not rebooked and no alternatives were available, no communications about other arrangements were known or announced. We were able to find an American Airlines agent at a different gate who tried in vain to find us a flight to Utah that same day.

She finally found a flight to Salt Lake City via Newark on Delta Air Lines.

Our return flight to Chicago was canceled by American Airlines — another broken plane. We finally departed midday and arrived home hours later than we planned.

We complained to American Airlines, but it offered us a form apology and 3,000 miles each. I asked them for a refund; the airline refused. Somehow, this is unjust and unfair. Can you please help? We lost two full days of our vacation because of their broken planes. — Renata Fidman, Chicago

Answer: Losing two vacation days is unacceptable, but not as disappointing as American’s canned apology and mileage offer. After all, nothing says, “I don’t care” like a form letter, and nothing underscores it quite like frequent flier miles that assume you’ll take another American flight.

But do you have a case? Have a look at American’s contract of carriage, the legal agreement between you and the airline. Section 3 suggests it owes you nothing for the inconvenience.

“American is not responsible for or liable for failure to make connections, or to operate any flight according to schedule, or for a change to the schedule of any flight,” it says.

I disagree, despite the contract. Most reasonable passengers assume the planes will work, and are willing to forgive one mechanical delay. After all, it’s better to be safe than dead. But being rerouted to Newark and then experiencing another mechanical failure on the return flight — well, I think it’s not unreasonable to expect more than a form apology and a few miles.

Although there’s nothing you can do during a mechanical delay except ask to be rebooked on the next flight — which you did — you can be more proactive when you complain. You sent an email to American, but you could have appealed it to someone higher up the corporate food chain when the airline kicked back a form letter. I list several helpful names and their contact information on my customer service wiki.

I contacted American on your behalf. A representative phoned you and offered a real apology and $800 in vouchers, which is somewhat better than the miles.

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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  • lost_in_travel

    Tony,  I was not really thinking about Fedex overnight shipping because I said, “good condition in a reasonable time” meaning that a standard package wouldn’t care if the trip took a little longer, it did not worry about losing a vacation day or some sleep.  So don’t ship me overnight, use two or three day shipping because that is closer  to what the airline contract allows.  And there would be a tracking label on my butt so I would not get lost!  :-) 

  • bodega3

    Also, the first day needs to be considered a travel day.  So if they indeed got to Utah the same day as scheduled then they really didn’t lose a day, just a few hours.  Now I have encountered a delay on a flight that required new equipement.  Prior to the carrier arranging a new plane, we were going to have to be reaccommodated on another flight.  First one out that they could get for us was two days from then, so I know the frustration firsthand. 

  • MarkieA

    Through your many posts, I get the feeling that you think the world would be a much better place without all these confounded people in it. I hope you’re not in the Customer Service part of the airline business.

  • $16635417

    LOL!

  • cowboyinbrla

     Actually, the wholesale rate for airline miles (what airlines get from hotel companies, credit cards, etc.) is about a penny per mile. So 3,000 miles are worth, wholesale, about $30. That’s how much the initial offer was worth, which is insulting, particularly since to use them, you have to acquire tens of thousands more.

    The vouchers are a big step in the right direction, and probably the best the customer will get, but vouchers are still “funny money”. They’re often loaded with restrictions (i.e. you can’t use this on the cheapest seats, even if they’re available). If they’re valid towards ANY airfare, then I’d say it’s a decent deal.

  • bodega3

    Guess you really don’t follow this site.  Thanks for the Friday Funny!

  • cowboyinbrla

     Sorry, but NO. For a flight of two hours, there should be no way that everyone should expect to lose an entire day traveling. That’s insulting, especially considering that the airlines require you to be at the airport 90 minutes or more before “scheduled” takeoff or else run the risk of losing your seat.

    Under your logic, airlines should just tell everyone to show up at 6 AM at the airport and they’ll load people in order of arrival – first arrivals get the 6 AM flight till it’s full, then the next batch leave at 712, or whatever, and eventually everyone (hopefully) flies. Or you could pay a $50 fee and get bumped up 100 spots in the line.

    On second thought, perhaps I’d better shut up now,  before I give the dinosaur carriers any new ideas.

  • longtimetvlr

    So it was either or?   Did anyone finish the movie then ask for a refund?

  • longtimetvlr

    I am platinum on American.  I have several perks that I apprecialte.  No bag fees, no premium seat fees, early boarding, extra miles on flights and on several occaisions when the flight did not go as planned for mechanical or other r reasons I have received bonsu miles.

  • Michelle C

    I disagree with your post about the travel day.  It depends on where you are going.    I can see a cross country or international flight with a layover being considered a day, but I routinely buy AM (going to) flights, and PM (return home) flights for one way-no layover 2-3 hr flights with the expectation that I will be able to do a few more things if the flights are on time.  I edited my initial post to reflect what I personally consider a travel day delay. I’m not bothered by a couple of hrs of delay, but I can’t help but notice that I spend more time waiting for AA then I do any other airline.    I have never been compensated even when the delay was 2 days.

  • Michelle C

    ugh… we travelers always have to be one step ahead.   Before this I wouldn’t think to ask if the vouchers are good all at the same time.    To me a voucher should be like a gift certificate- use as much or as little as you want when you want. 

  • bodega3

    Having sold airline tickets for many decades, you learn a thing or two.  Consider your day of flight a travel day and you won’t be disappointed if you are late.  It will be a treat to actually arrive on time.  This is why we NEVER have clients fly on the day they need to attend something or get to a cruise.  Delays are more common that ever before. 

  • bodega3

    Sorry, but in today’s world of airline travel, delays are more prevalent than ever before.    As much as I wish all would go perfectly, it doesn’t so you need to allow for delays.   

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Wouldn’t know because I took the refund! 

    But you’re still sure you want to equate a $20 purchase with a delay measured in minutes to a thousand dollar purchase where the delay was two days?   

    If there’s a problem at the theater I get in my car and am back home in a few minutes. That wasn’t a possibility for these folks and you can’t reschedule a vacation nearly as easily as going back to the theater.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UES4TUPI6NRPTG2DCB4YCX6R4U wyoming1949

    In my view frequent flier miles are worthless–at least for air travel–and “vouchers” aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.  Such things would not exist if Congress forced airlines to comply with state consumer fraud laws.  A refund is the only true compensation.  The fees, black-out dates, and other restrictions airlines use to prevent their customers from using frequent flier miles for air travel make a pathetic joke out of the notion that there is some relationship between frequent flier miles and free, or discounted, air travel.  For those who simply can’t avoid frequent flier programs I advise transferring your miles to a hotel “frequent stay” program and using miles to buy an airline club (ie: United Red Carpet) membership.  Likewise, airline vouchers are akin to a deed to the Brooklyn Bridge.  It’s difficult to impossible to use them in a booking—unless, perhaps, you are fluent in Hindustani which is the native language of those working the call centers of some airlines.  Also vouchers have expiration dates and other restrictions designed to discourage use.  Domestic air travel would improve 100% if frequent flier programs were abolished and we turned the clock back to the 1950s.  Back then you got a plaque if you racked-up a huge number of miles.  AA even threw-in a membership to its little-used club at LaGuardia/New York. 

  • flutiefan

     if i’m on a driving vacation and my car breaks down through no fault of mine, does Ford owe me compensation?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OEPJGQPIEB75YYDE5CJY6R3VFE Carver Clark Farrow II

    Actually, some elite level fliers (think flyertalk) rabidly collect miles.

  • flutiefan

     MeanMeosh is right: it depends.  some airlines i know allow you to use the value of the voucher like cash… it’s good toward any flight, and you get to “keep the change” until it hits 1 year or you use it up.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OEPJGQPIEB75YYDE5CJY6R3VFE Carver Clark Farrow II

    You’re on vacation, and your rental car breaks down in the middle of the desert.  No water, no AC, cell reception, sweltering until finally you are rescued by highway patrol.  Different situation.

  • bodega3

    Which carrier have you experienced to do this?  We use to be able to issue a residual, but it has been a use it or lost policy for a long time for the one’s I have received or used for clients.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Yes, I get the same treatment on CO/UA but it seems that getting those comp upgrades is much harder to score lately.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OEPJGQPIEB75YYDE5CJY6R3VFE Carver Clark Farrow II

    I would have been howling mad

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OEPJGQPIEB75YYDE5CJY6R3VFE Carver Clark Farrow II

    I think the truth is somewhere between you and Michele.  It really depends on the flight, time of year, importance of arriving on time, etc.

    For example, I would never consider a short commuter flight to waste an entire day of travel.  I”m flying on a direct flight SFO-LAX tomorrow. One hour flight on a light travel day.  I have the entire day planned out beginning at noon, giving myself time for delays.

    But if the flight is long, multple connections, transitting through airports with known delays, then I give a much greater buffer.

    And if I were traveling on a cruise, I would absolutely arrive the day before, possibly two days depending on my confort level.

    When I travel for court, I always arrive the day before.

  • cowboyinbrla

    Depends. If the car’s under warranty, they may well owe you a rental car. And in point of fact, in that situation, you can usually rent a car and be on your way with only a short delay. With air transport, you’re at the mercy not only of the schedule of the airlines, but whether they’ll deign to put you on another flight (theirs or someone else’s – the latter increasingly rare).

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OEPJGQPIEB75YYDE5CJY6R3VFE Carver Clark Farrow II

    I have to respectfully disagree with everything you said. You make many grandiose, yet unsupported statements.  FF miles are like any investment, you have to know which one is appropriate for you.  I have had great success with my frequent flier miles, most recently using them for a free business class ticket to the Caribbean to attend a family member’s funeral.

    As far as the 1950’s goes, surely you remember that back in the day, airline travel was prohibitively expensive for the average American.  Today, its crowded and full of delays, but if you have a job, you can afford to fly.

    The egalitarian in me prefers a system where everyone has access rather than a privileged few.

  • MarkKelling

    I still get my comp upgrades on UA (so far) on the DEN IAH run. 

    But trying to book reward flights is much more difficult and costly than it was under CO.  I’m trying to get to LHR in late August from DEN. They have a seat available in 1st for only 175,000 miles – one way. Plus all of the taxes, fuel surcharges and fees you would pay on a cash purchase ticket. And I have to fly from DEN to SFO, back to ORD and then to LHR.

  • bodega3

    Hope the winds don’t delay you! 

  • MarkKelling

    Collecting is a disease that some people catch.  While I like my miles and have a lot stashed, I don’t do anything stupid to get them.

  • cowboyinbrla

     I didn’t say it wasn’t becoming increasingly common. It’s just unacceptable.

    It’s logic like yours (“consider your day of flight a travel day”) that leads people to figure that if they can drive somewhere within 12 hours, it makes more sense to drive than fly – because you can’t depend on an airline to do jack any more. And then people wonder why they think airlines are crappy businesses?

    And it’s why businesses are pouring millions into the ability to videoconference – if sending someone to a three-hour meeting in a city that’s only a 3-hour flight away requires allocating two full days for travel, it makes more sense to find a way to get everyone together virtually. What’s that going to do to airline bottom lines as an ever-increasing share of their short-notice business fliers stop flying and start videoconferencing?

  • TonyA_says

    I begged earlier — pls. don’t shoot me. I’m begging again :-)

  • bodega3

    Video conferencing should be considered first!

  • Sadie_Cee

    While I don’t believe the OP is entitled to a refund, there is something about this situation that perplexes me.According to the OP, “Once we landed, we were not rebooked and no alternatives were available, no communications about other arrangements were known or announced. We were able to find an American Airlines agent at a different gate who tried in vain to find us a flight to Utah that same day.”  Given what had just happened, is this statement plausible?  If so, why were the usual courtesies not extended by AA voluntarily to these pax?  Is there something I don’t know? Bewildered in TO.

  • longtimetvlr

    Yes you are right Raven.  I am happy on most flights with seats on the aisle in the exit row.  I use the miles for personal trips to Europe.  AA has a night web interface that shows you the miles needed by date and you can pick what you want.

  • flutiefan

     Southwest does.  as i’ve mentioned before, i’ve worked in their terminal and roomie worked there several years. i believe JetBlue is same way?

  • longtimetvlr

    This website blocks what I am typing after two lines so I meant nice web interface not night web interface, but I usually do use it at night so maybe that works just as well.  Agiin I can’t see what I am typing so I hope it is still readable.

  • $16635417

    True, it’s a goodwill gesture. Does anyone believe that if they offered a goodwill gesture of $800 that it has a cash equivalent to the airline of the same amount though? 

    Dave Champagne indicated he would prefer cash to $1,000,000 in vouchers. (Insert Dr. Evil impression with upturned pinky finger at corner of mouth.) I simply indicated that if the choice were say $1,000,000 in airline credits or $800 cash…under the right conditions I’m taking the million.

  • backprop

    Did you read the story?  They were not refunded anything; the airline gave them miles and vouchers as a gesture of goodwill, which they did not have to do. 

  • backprop

    People are not reading today.

    I replied to the poster who said, quote, “If somebody need to buy 3000 miles it cost at most 10$”

    The offer was not “insulting” because the OP was not owed anything.  A free $30 is not “insulting” (and it’s really more than $30 for the average person).

  • cowboyinbrla

    Backprop, with respect, I DID read your post. My reply was to you AND the poster to whom you replied.

    Legally, it may be true that under the contract of carriage, the OP isn’t “owed” anything. If all we were concerned with was the contract of carriage, there wouldn’t be a need for commentary at all. Chris could just read the contract, tell every OP “You’re screwed”, and call it a day.

    The question isn’t what’s LEGALLY REQUIRED; it’s what is ETHICALLY and MORALLY RIGHT. Airline contracts of carriage are written from the point of view of protecting the airline from responsibility for anything. They have absolutely nothing to do with what’s right.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UES4TUPI6NRPTG2DCB4YCX6R4U wyoming1949

    Mr. Farrow:  Yes, the average air fare, in the ’50s and ’60s, was significantly higher than today.  HOWEVER you (conveniently??) overlooked the fact that, even then, discounted air fares DID exist.  During my college days (in the late 1960s) I frequently took advantage of Delta Air’s “youth fare.”  Unlike competing carriers this fare offered a confirmed reservation, as opposed to “stand-by” status.  Also, Delta was a totally different airline then in terms of the way it related to customers.  Even I, with my piddling 50 buck (one-way) fare, was treated with basic respect—something that most US-based carriers, today, couldn’t do if their life depended on it!

  • technomage1

     It depends on the nature of the disruption if flight miles are valid or not. Years ago I flew overseas on Northwest and the video screen in the main cabin broke.  They tried to fix it but could not.  They apologized over the intercom and I thought that was the end of it.  But to my surprise, we were met when we landed with someone handing us vouchers good for 500 free frequent flier miles.  I never used mine but for the miniscule cost of that voucher Northwest had my business for years until they merged with Delta.

  • bodega3

    Those are two I have never worked with regarding vouchers.  My last voucher from UA didn’t allow for any residual.

  • SallyLu

    That isn’t even comparable.  When I choose to take my car, that I own and am responsible for maintenance on, I am assuming all responsibility for my trip.  When I pay someon to transport me to a destination, I am paying them to take the responsiblility of getting me there.  Judging by the majority of responses here, we have come to expect no service from the airlines and the thought that if they actually get us to our destination we are pretty lucky.  I know someone will chime in and say that the COCs just say they have to get them to their destination and that is it.  That doesn’t make it right.   What is sad is that all of the seasoned travelers who post on this site seem OK with that and act like the OP is a whiny looser for expecting to actually be transported, as scheduled, so they can enjoy the vacation they paid for.  I just don’t get this wide spread acceptance of such a low level of expectation from the airlines.  It bothers me that so many here seem to accept that the airlines COCs are so one sided. 

  • Joe_D_Messina

    What always interests me is how the poll results tend to be so much more forgiving of the travelers than the comments. The poll’s running 73%-27% right now against the airline, but the comments might be the mirror image of that. 

    We’ve got the OP being called greedy, people trying to compare it to a movie starting a little bit late…. These folks must be the most accepting travelers on earth, willing to accept any inconvenience with a smile. (Or they’ve got a totally different set of standards for what they’d put up with versus what they think others should endure.)

  • MarkKelling

    Your key statement is “was a totally different airline.”

    Every airline back in the day was a totally different airline. They all offered service with a smile and treated everyone with respect.  Those days are gone and will never return. And even $50 in the 60’s was a whole lot of money to most people.

  • SimoneNY

    Chris, your question asking if FF miles are an appropriate response for a flight disruption isn’t so easy to answer.

    First of, we’re talking about TWO flight disruptions on one R/T itinerary.  That’s rather inexcusable.
    Also,3000 miles for 4 people comes to 750 miles per person – that’s totally useless. Had AA given each of the 4 people 10,000 miles, that may have been appropriate.  Althought the $800. vouchers that you secured for them is best. I’m sure they appreciate that. Kudos to you!

    AA’s lack of communication once the first plane was grounded is truly disgusting.   What are these people supposed to do? Go home and forget about their vacation?  This “We don’t give a damn” attitude blows my mind.

  • Rosered7033

    I am aware of this type, it’s like a religion to them. But for the most part, someone who has flown a million or more miles doesn’t have much use for 3k miles. It’s a standard answer to most inconveniences brought on by the path of less maintenance the airlines have now chosen.

  • Rosered7033

    Yes, as I said – the elite-level flyer can buy a magazine subscription with them. Woohoo.

  • Rosered7033
  • http://oussamastake.blogspot.com/ Oussama

    It does not appear that they incurred any financial loss for the rebooking on Delta. So what is the price of inconvenience? For me miles are acceptable