Why won’t American refund my flight?

Ivan Cholakov / Shutterstock.com

After Geoff Shaughnessy’s flight from Chicago to Palm Beach is canceled, he’s rebooked on another carrier. Oh wait – not really. He’s just had to pay another $352 to get home. Can he get a refund?

Question: I’m trying to get a refund from American Airlines and I need your help. I recently flew from Grand Rapids, Mich., to Palm Beach. The first segment of my flight from Grand Rapids to Chicago was late, and I missed my next flight from Chicago to Palm Beach.

An American Airlines representative rebooked me on another flight to Palm Beach operated by Delta Air Lines. At least that’s what he said. But when I finally reached the Delta terminal to obtain boarding passes, the Delta reps there told me no ticket had been issued by American.

Since time was running out to board the last flight of the day to Palm Beach, and the Delta reps couldn’t get the American reps to answer the phone, I was forced to purchase a one-way Delta ticket for a total of $352.

So far, American has refunded $2.50 and offered me a $100 voucher. It seems straightforward and obvious they owe me another $349.50, and I think they know it too. Can you help me?
Geoff Shaughnessy, Palm Beach, Fla.

Answer: Ah, airline math! No industry calculates prices and refunds quite like commercial aviation, and customers almost always end up on the losing end.

Your case turned out to be a little more complicated than it looked. American reviewed your request and found that you were traveling on a frequent flier award ticket, which technically has no value, so the refund which covered some government fees on the ticket, was correct. (See, I’m not the only one who says award tickets are worthless.)

The point of contention is whether American should have covered the cost of your flight on Delta. American’s records don’t show you were ticketed on the last flight of the day to Palm Beach. Normally, an airline will rebook you on a flight of its choosing, but if you aren’t ticketed on that flight, you’d have to go back to the carrier for a resolution.

Instead, you took matters into your own hands. You took the American rep at his word – that the airline had intended to pay for your ticket to Palm Beach – and assumed it would reimburse you for what appeared to be an airline error.

That turned out to be an incorrect assumption. American’s rules, which are pretty standard across the airline business, say it’s the airline’s decision on how and when to rebook you. You really needed to reach an airline representative through its 800-number to get guidance on what to do next.

Still, when a representative tells you to run to the gate and catch the next flight to Palm Beach, you should be able to consider that some form of guarantee. I can’t fault you for taking matters into your own hands, considering the previous delays.

You’ll be happy to know there are several levels of appeal. First, you can contact one of American’s executives; I list them on my website. You can contact the US Department of Transportation (DOT) to complain about this. Or you can contact me.

You chose doors number two and three. You wrote to the DOT, and also contacted me. I got in touch with American on your behalf. American refunded your $350.

Can you take an airline employee at his or her word?

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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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  • TonyA_says

    That’s the whole idea. Airline’s are very reluctant just to issue a FIM.
    Usually this is a last resort.
    For that reason, airlines usually make a deal with OALs for IROPs.
    This is an “I scratch your back, you scratch mine BILATERAL deal”.

    Since the OP was not holding a FIMs document, I doubt he was FIMed. Otherwise DL would have boarded him and charged AA a ton of money.


    I too have gotten paperwork to take to the airline on which I have been rebooked. And if they do not offer it, I ask for it.

  • Extramail

    My daughter is waiting for a refund from American as I write this. Her flight was cancelled entirely and no one, absolutely no one, was helpful at all. The gate agent handed everyone an envelope as they got off the plane and told to file for a refund and then left the gate area. Sarah filed te paperwork online as the info in the envelope instructed and the response came back that she was not due a refund because it was a non-refundable flight. She called and was told that her refund was in process and it would be the end of June before she’d see the refund. Chris, expect a request to mediate very soon!

  • bodega3

    Can you fill us in on how, when you worked at the airport, frequent flyer tickets were handed, both full award tickets and upgrades. Were they endorsable?

  • MarkKelling

    UA didn’t want to spend the equivalent of a full price fare to put you (or anyone else for that matter) on another airline’s flight in exchange for just the miles redeemed and hoped you would be fine with the 2 day delay. They also didn’t want to put you on another of their flights because if you didn’t fly all they owed you was the miles where anyone who paid for a ticket and didn’t get on a flight would be owed real money. It’s all about the potential profit.

    Last time something like this happened to me, I went to the United Club and talked with the Global Services agent there (even though I am not at that level in the UA FF program). He was able to put me on the next flight out that day even though there was no availability showing. I got my Business First seat and got to my destination in Europe only 4 hours late. Many others were still arguing with the gate agent about getting rebooked as I walked past that gate on the way to my replacement flight. Maybe I was just lucky.

  • MarkKelling

    That was the good old days of paper tickets where all you had to do was hand it to a ticketing agent for a different airline and, if they felt like it, they would put you on their next available flight. From what I have been told, electronic tickets are not ENDORSABLE because there is no equivalent of a paper ticket to present back to the original airline as a tenderable document for payment.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    CCF certainly would know better than me, but it’s my understanding that, as Elliott often points out, award miles and tickets are simply pixie fairy dust that airlines use to lure people into getting credit cards or buying stuff, but have zero cash value because the airline’s FF policy states something like: “Customer has zero rights. They don’t like it? Don’t join our program!” In other words, an F-U contract but maybe there’s a proper legal term for that.

    With paid tickets, subject to all kinds of commie federal regulation and normal contract law, the airline MUST get that person to their destination, period. Award tickets are basically: “If the airline is in a good mood that day, they’ll fly you.”

    Of course, for the most part, airlines don’t want to p off their FF customers. Even though there’s much less legal requirement for them to honor award tickets, it’s bad business for them to annoy too many of them and result in their billion dollar credit card and club systems collapsing if people lose all confidence in the system. (The same thinking goes into our USA monetary system.) That’s why the airline rewarded the guy’s money. It was a “gesture of goodwill.”

    At least that’s my understanding.

  • bodega3

    I actually did quite nicely. I was very nice at the counter and had waited for 3 other business class passengers to get reaccommodated when it was my turn. Right after he told me it would be 48 hours, if I wanted to keep the upgrade, as he could accommodate us in economy, he got a call and UA brought in an international configured 777 for us, as our damaged plane was a 747, He put my 80 year old mother and me in first class. Only problem after that was our flight out of ORD was delayed so we spent about 20 hours in the airports and flying just to get to ALB…ugh!

  • bodega3

    Usually the rules of the fare state it in the PNR and it is usually nonrefundable fares. When we do a ticket exchange for a nonrefundable fare, we must put the nonendorsable in the ticketing field or we get fined.

  • bodega3

    But I should state, all this is up to the gate agents as to what they allow any fare to do. I was on a nonrev ticket, which allows for basically no compensation and I was put up in a hotel, given meal vouchers and got $200 back from the carrier. Go figure!

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    American had a later flight from Chicago to Palm Beach.
    Why on earth would any airline want to pay another airline for a flight when they had one going ?
    I’d suggest, you abused the gate agent & to get rid of you, they said go to Delta. At ORD that’s probably miles away.
    Always two sides to a story & I think you’re either telling a”porky pie” or not the whole truth.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Perhaps there was insufficient space on the subsequent flight?

  • TonyA_says

    Ok IMO to the typical layman when AA tells you to go to DL counter such and such and get your boarding pass for flight xxx, then you should assume it won’t cost you an extra dime.

    Whether they got your tickets reissued or the other airline accepting your airline’s ticket coupons or your airline issued a FIM should be transparent to you.

    Something is so wrong with the system if the passenger needs a phd in INVOL REROUTE handling and ticketing to be the World’s Smartest Traveler.

    So for the OP, if AA really made the DL booking for him, then AA should have made sure it was ticketed IMO.

  • mythsayer

    The one time this happened to me, arrived from Japan to seatac, onward to california, my california flight was insanely delayed. My baby was really sick (she had RSV and got a steroid shot but it was wearing off after the long flight and she was running a fever). My mom called delta to try to get is on another flight and told them about my daughter. They told her there was no other flight, so I was waiting and about ten minutes later I was called up to the gate and handed a boarding pass for united and told to RUN to another concourse (which is great fun in the s terminal in Seattle with a baby) to get on a united flight leaving in 35 minutes. I made it fine and we got to la. I don’t know if delta did it because of the baby (I’m thinking so?) but I was the only one sent to united and I’ve found out from this site how rare a booking that was. Difference is that I got a boarding pass. I would never buy a ticket, even if it were the last flight, unless it were a crazy emergency.

  • Thetine

    “Difference is that I got a boarding pass. I would never buy a ticket, even if it were the last flight, unless it were a crazy emergency.”

    There’s the rub. Despite your chaotic day, you had still obtained a boarding pass. Not on paper = non-existent.

  • MarkKelling

    Sounds like it cost the airline more to NOT put you on another flight.

  • mythsayer

    I agree… That’s why I was pointing out that they will give you some kind of documentation… I can’t believe they didn’t here or that they guy bought a ticket. Now that I think of it, I think it might not have been a boarding pass but a confirmation of the inter airline reservation delta made for me. I think emanon mentioned one below (the confirmation). I’m pretty sure my paper had a seat number on it…and it might have been the boarding pass. It was awhile ago and a stressful day as you said, but either way, the point is that I was given written documentation. And we’d been denied boarding, we’d have been back over at the delta counter figuring out what was going on. And the interesting thing is that I’m pretty sure we were on an award flight, too. My case was very similar to this guy’s case but I really was put on another flight.

  • http://all-things-aviation.com JetAviator7

    Everyone picks on the poor airline employee that has to face the public and who just wants to get you out of their face, on your way and out of their life!

  • Betsy

    Usually in my experience they print out and hand you the new boarding pass(es). I had FF award seats on United last year, and both going and returning, the United flights got screwed up and they rebooked me on US Air. The United agent gave me the US Air boarding passes, and I was all set to go.