Late for your flight? Call the airline. Or it may cost you.

I know a few people who are early for everything — there’s a good chance they were even born early. But the majority of us have been late for something in our lifetimes. When the thing that you’re late for is a flight, call the airline. Nathaniel Brewer didn’t — and it cost him.

At the end of his recent trip to Miami, Brewer was “feeling sick” before his return flight to Boston on American Airlines, and he didn’t make it to the airport before his flight departed. When he finally arrived at the airport he spoke to several American representatives who, Brewer claims, each quoted a different amount he would have to pay to get home:

“I spoke to the clerk at the gate who initially informed me that I would be able to fly standby at no additional charge,” Brewer says. “Shortly after, I was told that I would have to pay $50 and then a few minutes later told that I could not fly standby at all.”

A person Brewer assumed to be a supervisor told him he’d have to pay another $200 to catch a later flight.

Brewer (who is an adult) questioned the different amounts quoted by different staff, and says the supervisor was “apparently frustrated” that he questioned the misinformation and increased the cost again to $420. That’s when Brewer called his mother. His mother told him to put the supervisor on the phone, but the supervisor refused to talk to her.

His mother then called American Airlines and tried to book another flight. She claims the reservations agent told her the cost to return her son to Boston would be $350. Frustrated with the lack of consistent information, Brewer’s mother booked a ticket on JetBlue, departing from the Orlando airport, more than 200 miles away, for which she says she paid $350.

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Brewer’s mother wrote to American Airlines, complaining about the different information both she and her son received when trying to rebook his flight, and the company responded with an apology for the “unpleasant experience.” It told her that according to its contract of carriage, passengers must check in no later than 45 minutes prior to a flight’s departure, and must be physically present at the departure gate no later than 15 minutes prior to the flight’s departure. If a passenger does not check in on time, an airline may assign the seat to another person, and as noted in American’s FAQs, a passenger unable to make his flight must “contact Reservations prior to your flight’s departure to retain the value of your ticket. Charges or penalties may apply for changes, depending on the fare paid for the ticket.”

Once Brewer failed to make that call, he forfeited the value of his ticket.

American noted that no proof of illness or other documentation for Brewer’s lateness was presented to the airport personnel, which would have allowed him to fly standby. It apologized for the agent’s error in giving the impression that this was an option, and also explained that the quoted prices of $200 and $240 were fare differentials and change penalties on his original ticket.

In response to American’s explanation, Brewer’s mother told us:

Nathaniel accepts full responsibility for having missed the flight, however, as a frequent traveler, I also have inadvertently missed flights, but an airline with high quality customer service practices is willing to accommodate its passengers to the extent possible, even if a change fee is incurred. This was not the case with American. We believe they took advantage of a young adult inexperienced traveler who presumably may not have known his rights.

In fact, American was willing to set aside its policy at the airport that day and allow Brewer to use the value of his ticket toward the purchase of a new ticket — the airline was not required to do so. Brewer and his mother were unhappy with the cost of his mistake and chose to pay for a new ticket on another airline. Since American was willing to allow him to use the value of his ticket, it isn’t responsible for the Brewers’ choice to use another airline — or for his transportation to the other airport.

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This doesn’t mean that American couldn’t allow him to fly standby, but rather that it wasn’t required to do so. I suspect that if Brewer had provided proof of his illness, the airline might have extended that possibility.

After American apologized but did not take responsibility for the cost of the new ticket, Brewer’s mom filed a complaint with the Department of Transportation. It responded to her with its standard letter that it forwarded the complaint to the airline, that it counted the complaint against the airline in the DOT’s yearly report, and that it required the airline to respond to the complaint. American did respond to the DOT complaint, but it did not change its position on the incident.

So Brewer’s mother reached out to us, but we couldn’t help her for two important reasons: Brewer’s mother, not Brewer himself, filed the request for help, and she had already contacted the DOT. We don’t generally advocate cases in which the complaint comes from someone other than the affected consumer. Also, once the DOT or a law firm is involved in a case, the company won’t talk to us.

One thing that jumped out to me about this case is the variety of numbers thrown around by everyone. While Brewer’s mother complains about American Airlines’ “conflicting information,” her request to us also quoted different amounts in different parts of her story. She claims they lost the value of the return flight to Boston, paid $350 for a JetBlue flight, and had to pay for her son’s transfer to Orlando, yet only stated the value of her claim at $300. Even if her son had requested our help and they hadn’t filed a complaint with the DOT, I would have questioned this one.

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Even though we couldn’t help Brewer’s mother or her son, this case does provide us the opportunity to remind our readers that if you find yourself running late for a flight, call your airline in order to retain the value of your ticket. If you don’t call in advance and need our help, give us the facts in a letter or email that has been carefully proofread to eliminate discrepancies, and take time to personally write to us, rather than delegating it to someone else.

Michelle Bell

Michelle worked in the travel and hospitality industry for almost two decades. Born in Germany, she has lived in 15 states and two foreign countries, and traveled to more than 35 countries. After living and working in Southeast Asia for several years, she now resides in New Orleans. Read more of Michelle Bell's articles here.

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