A no-show nightmare

by Christopher Elliott on July 27, 2006

Question: Last year I bought a ticket on American Airlines to visit my mother in Panama. Several weeks before I was supposed to leave, she fell ill and I asked my travel agent to put me on an earlier flight.

My agent came up with the following solution: I would buy a new one-way ticket to Panama and use the return portion of the old ticket to get back to Miami.

I paid $278 for a one-way ticket and flew to Panama. Thank goodness my mother made a full recovery.

When I tried to check in for my return flight, however, American Airlines told me that, since I had not used the first portion of the ticket, my return ticket was invalid. They wanted $800 to get me back to Miami. I went online and bought a new roundtrip ticket for $551, with the idea that I would just use one half of the ticket.

So here’s my problem: I’m trying to get credit for the first ticket that I booked through my agency, and American won’t let me. They say that I was a “no show” and that the ticket was canceled. My agent says I should be able to use the ticket with a $100 change fee.

Can you help me?

Dante Viggiano, Miami

Answer: Your travel agent got a little creative when she booked your flight. Maybe a little bit too creative.

An airline will cancel your ticket if you don’t show up for the first leg of a flight and, apparently, American was never notified that you had a family emergency and intended to use the return portion of your ticket.

Using only one half of your ticket (because it’s cheaper than buying a one-way ticket) is a favorite trick of frequent travelers. But technically, it’s a violation of the terms of your ticket, which is why air carriers take such a hard line on “no shows.” Simply put: The practice costs them money.

From the airline’s point of view, it also doesn’t make any sense to hold your reservation on a return flight if you didn’t show up for your outbound flight. Why should a plane fly with what is likely to be an empty seat?

I don’t think the ticket terms make a lot of sense, from a traveler’s point of view. I mean, how can you force anyone to use the entire portion of your ticket? What if your plans change, as yours did?

When I asked American to look into your case, I was relieved to learn that its conditions are somewhat flexible. Which is to say, if you or your travel agent had notified the airline that you had a family emergency and that you intended to use only the return portion of your ticket, it could have made an exception.

An American representative contacted you and apologized for the misunderstanding. You’ve been issued a voucher for the full amount of the unused ticket.

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