Would someone please tell American Airlines to stop its deceptive “hold” policy for tickets?

Another day, another person duped by American’s 24-hour “hold” policy.

What’s American’s deceptive “hold” policy? I’ll explain in a minute.

But the case opens a much bigger door. It begs the question: Did the government, in an effort to accommodate the airline industry, offer an enormous loophole that is allowing companies to dupe their customers? And is it time to close that loophole or to simply accept it?

But first things first. American gives you two options when you book a ticket. You can pay for it or “hold” it for 24 hours.

Under the Transportation Department’s 24-hour rule, implemented in 2013, it must either “hold” for 24 hours or offer a refund within 24 hours of purchase, with certain exceptions.

Most domestic carriers went with door number two — refund within 24 hours. Except American.

And that’s where today’s case starts. It comes to us by way of Bennetta Anderson.

“I purchased a ticket from American,” she says. “I tried to get a refund almost immediately. However, due to their almost-hidden hold policy I could not.”

Almost hidden? Well, yeah. This is a lot like baggage fees in 2009. Only one or two airlines had them, so a lot of people assumed — incorrectly, it turns out — that their luggage flew “free.” They were wrong.

“I realize this is their policy, but as every other U.S. airline offers the 24-hour refund, and their hold policy is not explained on the purchase page, I still feel cheated,” she says.

She wants me to fix this.

I’ve tried.

I’ve sat across from two American Airlines VPs and told them point blank that this policy is bad for customers. They disagreed.

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They insisted customers “like” the flexibility of being able to hold a ticket for 24 hours without having to pay anything. I can’t disagree with that, but how many people actually book the ticket, assuming they can get a 24-hour refund, which is the industry standard policy?

I can answer that: Too many.

So here’s what needs to happen. Instead of going after American for one refund, I can either accept this unintentional consequence of a government trying to accommodate the airline industry, or I can step up and ask the DOT to close this loophole permanently.

I don’t see any prominent advocates calling for an end to this. But I promise, there are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of American passengers who feel deceived by its practice of saying, “Oh, we’re sorry, your ticket isn’t refundable — but you could have held it if you wanted to.” (Or if they’d prominently disclosed this option.)

American had a chance to do the right thing when it harmonized its policies with US Airways. It decided that this customer-unfriendly policy would serve it best, and I have no doubt that it has. But it made the wrong call.

Should I advocate for American to change its 24-hour "hold" to conform with the industry standard?

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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 check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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