No refund on American

by Christopher Elliott on October 27, 2003

Q: I took two students and my wife to a conference in Washington last May. On the way back, when we transferred planes in St. Louis, we learned there was only one seat left on the 16-passenger plane to Paducah.

It was the last flight of the day and American Airlines wanted to give us a coupon to stay overnight. That was unacceptable to us, so they offered us $100 cash and gave us receipts and forms to be reimbursed for the last coupon of our flight.

I let my students keep their $100 (after all, it covered the inconvenience of being denied boarding and having to drive the four hours home in a rental car, which I also paid for).

I filled the appropriate paper work and waited. I heard nothing for two months so I called American Airlines customer service. They were very nice and determined that there must be a misunderstanding on their end as to what the $100 checks were supposed to cover.

It was suggested that I write a letter of explanation and resubmit the paperwork. I did. I waited another month. Nothing. I called again and again they were very nice. The lady on the phone completely understood the problem and could not understand why I was not being reimbursed. She gave me a name and a fax number and suggested I try to fax the problem to a manager. I did. I asked that he call or email an explanation if, in fact, I was not going to be reimbursed.

I have now faxed him three times in the last month. Still nothing. Can you help me?

– Timothy Johnston

A: It looks as if American Airlines promised you something it shouldn’t have.

According to its contract of carriage – the agreement between the airline and you – the $100 payment represented your full compensation for being denied boarding. It also says you’ll be transported, free of charge, on the next available flight to your destination.

In reviewing your case with an airline representative, it seems the ticket agent you spoke with in St. Louis should have offered you the $100, but insisted that you take the next available flight the following morning. Under American’s terms, you weren’t entitled to any additional compensation, except a hotel and meal voucher.

But the agent you spoke with agreed to credit you about $400, according to you. “There was possibly a misunderstanding about the cash payments as compensation for the value of the remaining ticket segment,” Tim Wagner, an airline spokesman, told me.

How could you have prevented this misunderstanding? When an agent makes a promise of any kind, try to get it in writing. You filled out paperwork, but you should have also asked for a receipt and the name of the employee. If you’re concerned about being bumped from a flight, you should consult the Department of Transportation Web site before you travel to find out if the airline you’ll be flying likes to overfill its planes.

I have to also wonder why American could refund you for $100 immediately but not for the rest of your flight segment.

Wagner promised to review your file, and a few hours after hearing from him, another airline representative called you with good news: Your refund was finally being processed.

“I am issuing a refund of the unused portions of the tickets for you, your wife and the two students that traveled with you,” Patricia Escobar, a customer-service representative, wrote in a letter that she also e-mailed to me. “Please accept my apology for the delay in our response.”

I don’t normally single out airline employees, but I can’t even begin to say how impressed I am by the way in which Wagner and Escobar handled your request. They were fast, efficient and, above all, polite.

But the airline also needs to take a hard look at its booking practices. American has one of the most sophisticated yield-management systems, which is said to be able to predict seat demand and book an aircraft accordingly. Some overbooking is inevitable, because not everyone shows up for the flight.

Your flight was overbooked by at least 20 percent. That just seems a little high, and is bound to lead to more disappointing customer experiences.

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