I invoke the “Flat Tire Rule”! That’s definitely a thing, right?

If you’re going to invoke an airline rule, first make sure that it actually exists.

In this case, trying to force an airline to comply with the so-called “Flat Tire Rule” didn’t help Irfan Baig. And while we can’t help him get a refund on a nonrefundable ticket, his case can help our readers.

Before we get into the details of his problem with Etihad Airways, let’s review what some people mistakenly think is a rule. The idea is that if you miss your flight due to something unavoidable, like a flat tire, airline agents will put you on the next available flight at no extra charge.

As much as we may wish otherwise, there is no such enforceable rule that we could find. It may be an optional practice or courtesy at some airlines, and may have been a rule with some of them at one time, but you will be hard-pressed to find it in the published terms and conditions of airlines today.

That misinformation is part of Irfan Baig’s complaint. Along with his wife and 18-month-old child, he was planning to fly from San Francisco to Mumbai, India, on Etihad. However, they were delayed getting to the airport.

From where we live, to get to the airport that day took about two and a half hours as opposed to a normal travel time of 50 minutes as we encountered some accidents on the way. When we frantically reached the airport well before the flight time there was no Etihad guest counter/representative available.

But did he really get to the airport early enough to check in for his flight? In his rambling complaint to the airline, he says something important: “Finally, one person who looked like an airport employee said that all the Etihad agents have gone and they are probably at the gate as they closed the counter one hour prior to departure.”

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We have no way of knowing when Baig and his family actually got to the airport. But his statement shows that he was trying to check in less than one hour before the departure time for an international flight. The website for San Francisco International Airport recommends arriving three hours before departure time for international flights. And Etihad, in its terms and conditions, says:

Check-in Deadlines are different at every airport and you are required to inform yourself about these Check-in Deadlines and honor them. We reserve the right to cancel your reservation if you do not comply with the Check-in Deadlines indicated.

With the check-in counter already closed, Baig tried frantically to phone Etihad but found himself caught in a frustrating loop of confusing menu options on their answering system. By the time he finally connected with a person, he was told that the agents were already boarding the flight, that he was too late, and that he would be considered a no-show.

That was when he tried to invoke the flat tire rule. The Etihad representative said no. About a year ago, we had a similar case of a traveler trying to invoke that rule after missing an Etihad flight out of New York. The airline’s response in both cases was the same.
The agent told Baig that that he could be booked on a later flight to Mumbai out of Los Angeles, but that would be at a last-minute ticket price that was many times higher than what he had paid.

When he asked about rebooking the flight he had missed for the next day, he was quoted a total fare, including change fees, that was more than twice what he had paid. He eventually used his smartphone to find a much cheaper fare on another carrier leaving that same day, and the family made it to Mumbai.

When he got home, he wrote a very long and angry email to Etihad. He should have followed our pointers for how to write an effective complaint letter. His rant referred to the flat tire rule and ended with a request for “a refund on these tickets as a courtesy which would suggest someone at Etihad cares.”

The airline’s reply was very polite but firm in denying his request. It cited Etihad’s terms and conditions, reminding him that it is the passenger’s responsibility to get to the airport at the proper time for check-in and boarding. The reply also said that his unused tickets could still be utilized and would be valid for one year from date of issue.

Baig didn’t like the response he got from the airline, so he contacted us, asking for help getting either a refund or an airline credit, as he put it, “with a long validity.”

Unfortunately for him, we think Etihad is on solid ground with its reply. Baig could still try again with a polite and concise letter to a higher level contact from the Etihad contacts on our website. He could ask for more time to use his tickets along with a waiver of any change fees. But this isn’t a battle we want to fight, so we’re filing it as a Case Dismissed.

Abe Wischnia

Abe started his working career as a television news reporter and newscaster before moving to corporate communications and investor relations. Now retired and having learned useful tips from Elliott.org, one of his volunteer activities is writing for us.

  • sirwired

    Well, it makes sense that if it’s too late to check in, the front counter isn’t going to have any employees there, especially if those same employees can help with boarding.

    The Flat Tire exception is a very nice thing to do, but no-shows are actually the strongest case for not refunding a non-refundable ticket. Your seat literally went off into the proverbial sunset without you in it.

  • Grandma

    While sometimes you can get lucky on domestic flights, it is much harder with once-a-day international flights. Mr. Baig original timing seems to be tight. Do not risk it.

    At SFO (or other big airports) airlines with only one or two international flights close the check-in strictly 60 min before departure. Either similar way as with Ethiad, the representatives leave with the flight. Or in other cases the check-in counters are shared by many arlines, so the representatives have to leave because other airlines representatives arrive.

    In this second case, when the representatives are still around (in the little room behind checking counters), you might have some chance to get them back by using a courtesy phone (not your own) in the check-in area. It might works only if you arrive 5-10 min after the closing time, and you only have carry-on.

    Even if they are more symphatetic, and use the ‘flat tire rule’, during busy holiday seasons or summer the ‘next’ availiable flight might be 48-72 hours later. Do not risk it.

  • James

    Mr. Baig original timing seems to be tight. Do not risk it.

    Taking Mr. Baig at his word — he was 1 hour 40 minutes late, and assuming the counters just closed, that means he was expecting to arrive 2.5 hours before the flight.

    Ethiad’s sole flight from SFO departs at 9:50AM; he probably left at 6:30AM expecting to arrive at 7:20AM — before rush hour, and normally fairly reasonable. 50 minutes away may have required crossing bridges, though (perhaps coming from Hayward across the three lane San Matei Bridge) and an accident there could create extremely long delays. But these ar accidents — they are not predictable, they do not occur regularly, nor do they occur often.

    To suggest Mr. Baig “get a room at a nearby hotel” is quite arrogant. Not everybody has the wealth to spend that kind of money in such a frivolous fashion. For all we know, Mr. Baig or his wife work for a living, and worked a night shift before flying, so 6:30AM may have been the earliest time they could depart for the airport. Their planning for getting to the airport is reasonable.

    What’s next? Suggesting he charter a helicopter to avoid traffic?

    Mr. Baig is the unfortunate victim of an accident — not poor planning. It is a shame Ethiad could not be more understanding.

  • LeeAnneClark

    This is an unfortunate situation, possibly made worse by Mr. Baig’s handling of it.

    I’ve missed two flights in the past few years. Both times I was put on the next available flight at no cost to me.

    One time was, similar to Mr. Baig’s situation, the result of a terrible accident on the freeway which added almost two hours to my drive time. It was a domestic flight, and I’d given myself plenty of time…but there was no way I could have planned for a fatal accident happening just ahead of me, leaving me trapped on the freeway with no way to exit.

    I didn’t even bother going to the check-in desk – I went right to the gate. It was less than an hour before departure, so there was still a possibility they could have gotten me on. They’d already given away my seat, but I was clearly so despondent (not angry, but I did burst into tears) that they took pity on me and, even though it was a non-refundable ticket and they could have said “sorry, nothing we can do”, they booked me on the next flight, five hours later.

    Perhaps that’s what he should have done – he would have at least been able to speak to someone sooner, and not wasted time getting lost in a phone tree. (Although this may not have been possible…if he didn’t check in online so he was lacking a boarding pass, TSA may not have let him through.)

    The other time was in Hong Kong, flying to Bali – and in this case we arrived 3 hours after the flight had departed! This was due to a misprint in my itinerary from my travel agent, who had printed 1:00 instead of 10:00 for the departure time. Yes, I should have actually looked at the airline ticket, but this was a complicated trip with multiple stops and tickets, so I was going off the detailed itinerary provided to me. I didn’t learn the mistake until I went to check in.

    Again this wasn’t the airline’s fault, but they too took pity on me and booked me on the next flight out, the next day, no charge. I showed her my itinerary, and she agreed that my mistake was understandable.

    The difference here is that a) I was working with people face to face at the airport, not on the phone, and b) I never got angry, nor demanded that they accommodate me – I acknowledged from the beginning that this was not their error, and politely (and maybe a little desperately) asked them for whatever assistance they could provide me. Which they gladly gave.

    I have no idea if Mr. Baig could have gotten a different outcome, but…that’s how it worked for me.

  • Rebecca

    I really do believe that in situations like this, attitude is everything. Certainly it isn’t the airline employee’s fault, and acting as such is very counterproductive. Being rude and/or demanding is even more counterproductive. The kinder and calmer you are, the more willing someone is to work with you, help you, and make an exception. It’s human nature. I’ve found that it never hurts to ask, and being kind and polite literally costs nothing but pays dividends.

  • Rebecca

    If 2 customers were in a position where policy dictated I didn’t have to do anything, I will freely admit that if someone was polite and didn’t blame me, I’d help. While if they were rude and pushy in the exact same circumstance, I wouldn’t. And almost every person that’s ever worked customer service will say the same thing. There’s always those hardliners that take their $10/hour job too seriously (like the ones that are coupon nazis at the checkout rifling through everything and triple checking the fine print when you clearly bought the item). But the vast majority will treat you the way you treat them.

  • Steve Rabin

    Perhaps he should have tried to call Etihad’s US reservation line to let them know the situation when it happened–perhaps they could have done something at that point.

  • Kristiana Lee

    While I feel bad for Mr. Baig and his family and agree that we don’t all have the money to spend a night near the airport, I agree with Grandma that he didn’t leave enough time. 2.5 hours for an international flight at a big airport like SFO with an 18-month-old is cutting it pretty close. You can’t plan for everything but it’s nice to leave some wiggle room. Had he planned on getting to the airport 3 hours before flight time as recommended, he probably would have made the flight. Those 30 minutes were critical in his case.

  • LeeAnneClark

    A much more succinct way of saying what I was trying to say, Rebecca. ;-) I was polite, I accepted full responsibility for my own mistakes, and basically threw myself on their mercy, acknowledging that they did not *have* to help me, but hoping they would.

    I’m quite lucky I got two agents who had hearts. :)

  • greg watson

    Most of us would, I think, have accepted the fact that ‘fate’ wasn’t on our side that day. Although I may sympathise with the OP, ‘ stuff happens’ & there wasn’t sufficient time to board his flight. I would file this case as ‘bad luck’.

  • AAGK

    I had the opposite experience. I was delayed to the airport and called to switch my flight. I asked if I could invoke a metaphorical flat tire rule bc I didn’t have a flat tire. They laughed but were so impressed that I had heard of the old term, they let me change the flight without a fee or fare increase.
    I learned a about the rule here.

  • Bill___A

    Certainly unfortunate. This is something of significant concern for me when I travel, but fortunately, has not been an issue yet – and is hopefully something I won’t have to deal with.
    When I am staying in a hotel anyway, I do generally make sure my night before a flight is in an airport hotel and that my car rental is returned the night before. That said, I don’t know what the solution to his problem is, but I think it is worth considerable effort to try prevent such a thing from happening. From what I have seen, some airlines are more accommodating than others.

  • Alan Gore

    For an international flight, I always make sure I can start from the vicinity of the airport on flight day.

  • Rebecca

    I like stories! I appreciate experience more than anything else, even if it’s anecdotal.

  • Bill___A

    Very true!

  • Bill___A

    You are bang on with that!

  • PsyGuy

    The lesson here is to always carry a flat tire in your trunk when traveling. Passport, luggage, flat tire. This way when you get to the airport late you can bring in the flat tire to show them. Any flat tire will due, doesn’t actually have to fit your car.

  • PsyGuy

    Google Maps will give you transit times based on current cautions and road obstructions.

  • Jim

    Even if you have baggage to check, check in online and get your boarding pass. At that point he could have went through security (leaving his wife with the luggage) and went to the gate to plead his case to the agents.

  • michael anthony

    While I agree with the case, I’m still bothered by the ability of airlines to want to charge you thousands of dollars, when you run into a problem. How many things do we buy that we fork over double the price, or more, if we run into a problem? Etihad made a nice little profit.

    I know the rules and agree with them. And it would be different had he arrived late because he “stopped to eat” or other nonsense. I just wish the carriers were bound by a maximum charge allowed, when a pax shows up late, luggage in tow. Put him on the next days flight, but at those prices? It’s like being ticketed $1k for an expired parking meter.

  • El Dorado Hills

    My experience flying international out of both SFO and SMF (Sacramento) is that you can not get a boarding pass online – you must check in at the counter at the airport and show your passport and then you get your boarding pass – and you can not go through security without the boarding pass. When we fly international out of SFO we always stay at an airport motel the night before (and some even include parking during your trip) and take the shuttle to the airport the next day in plenty of time to check in and go to the gate.

  • Attention All Passengers

    Sometimes it’s just best to remain as calm as possible (after the fact) and just talk about a partial refund or exchange for another trip in the future. Of course under the circumstances people feel desperate to stick with their original plans/travel date but I get the feeling that had he just stayed calm and asked about a date change (1-2 days later), he would have been hit with a date change fee of $200-$300 per person.

  • Michael__K

    We don’t know whether the seat literally went unfilled or not.

    Usually when people make the case for not refunding a non-refundable reservation, they refer to insurance. But this scenario was probably not insurable. A traffic accident that you are not personally involved in and for which you do not have a police report to document is not a Covered Reason on any insurance policy that I’m aware of.

  • Lindabator

    and even if the drive took an extra hour, he never left enough time (like the 3 hours) initially, so the onus is on him entirely

  • Lindabator

    he did not leave a 3 hour window – 2.5 at best, and got bit in the butt. his fault, as you HAVE to assume the worst and give yourself a safety cushion

  • Lindabator

    it is also not their responsibility to wake you up and chase you to the airport in time to make your flight – obviously others made it in time – he never left enough time in the first place – his problem

  • Lindabator

    actually – any time you change the outbound flight, it is priced as a new ticket, with the old one applied less the $300 change fee internationally — which is why it is VITAL to give yourself plenty of time

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