Why won’t American pay for my Delta flight?

When Brianna Ryan received notice that her American Airlines flight was delayed, she worried that she wouldn’t have time to make a connecting flight. According to Ryan, an American customer service agent promised that if she booked a new flight on another airline, American Airlines would pay for it. But when she sought reimbursement for her new airfare, American denied her request.

Ryan’s story underscores the necessity of carefully scheduling flight legs to allow sufficient time to make connections — and to get any promises made by an airline agent in writing, along with their full names and contact information.

Ryan paid 40,000 AAdvantage miles to fly to Beirut to volunteer at a refugee camp. For reasons unknown to our advocates, she booked an itinerary that required her to fly on American Airlines from Minneapolis to LaGuardia Airport in New York and connect to a flight departing from JFK Airport to Amman, Jordan. From there, she was scheduled to take a Royal Jordanian Airlines flight to Beirut. She did not book a return flight to the U.S.

Upon receiving an email from American Airlines that her flight to New York was delayed, Ryan wondered if she would have enough time to get to JFK to make her connection. In accordance with instructions in the email to call American Airlines immediately, claims Ryan, she contacted American’s customer service and spoke to an agent named Pamela. (She didn’t get Pamela’s last name.)

Pamela told Ryan to book a flight on Delta to JFK and make her connection, and to file a claim for reimbursement with American Airlines for her Delta airfare and luggage fees:

At this time I thought she was so helpful and clever. [She] gave me the Delta flight details and phone number, and specific instructions on how to execute this travel and then submit my receipts and get reimbursed later. She absolutely assured me it would be reimbursed (after I asked numerous times). She was very confident that this was what I must do and was the best option.

Ryan proceeded to follow Pamela’s advice and paid $700 for a ticket on Delta and luggage fees for a flight to JFK, which, she contends, deprived her of sufficient funds to return home to Minneapolis and kept her stuck in Lebanon. But when she filed a claim for the $700, American Airlines refused to pay it.

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“I am ultra-careful with my money and would never have spent that money if I knew there was even the slightest chance I wouldn’t [be] reimbursed! I really trusted the agent who seemed so knowledgeable and helpful in solving the flight delay and rebooking issue,” claims Ryan.

But therein lies Ryan’s problem. In addition to booking a connection that required transferring between airports, she trusted the agent so completely that she failed to get any confirmation of the agent’s promises in writing — promises that American Airlines doesn’t actually make in its contract of carriage, which provides that

American Airlines will provide customers at the airport and onboard an affected aircraft with timely and frequent updates regarding known delays, cancellations and diversions and will strive to provide the best available information concerning the duration of delays and to the extent available, the flight’s anticipated departure time.

We are not responsible for any special, incidental or consequential damages if we do not meet this commitment.

When cancellations and major delays are experienced, you will be rerouted on our next flight with available seats. If the delay or cancellation was caused by events within our control and we do not get you to your final destination on the expected arrival day, we will provide reasonable overnight accommodations, subject to availability.

In extreme circumstances, it is possible that a flight will cancel while on the ground in the city to which it was diverted. When this happens you will be rerouted on the next American flight with available seats, or in some circumstances on another airline or some other alternative means of transportation. If we are unable to reroute you, reasonable overnight accommodations will be provided by American, subject to availability.

Unfortunately for Ryan, there is no provision in American’s contract of carriage for reimbursing airfares on other airlines or incidental expenses after a passenger cancels a leg of a flight following an announced delay. Nor does any other airline reimburse such expenses.

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After American Airlines denied Ryan’s claim, she asked our advocates to help her secure a refund of the $700. (Executive contact information for American Airlines is available on our website.) We reached out to American Airlines to see what light it could shed on Ryan’s cancellation and request for a refund.

We learned that Ryan’s original flight to New York was delayed by only 30 minutes and arrived at LaGuardia Airport with sufficient time for Ryan to make her connection and that she had been awarded 12,000 frequent flyer miles as a gesture of goodwill. In addition, we were told that although American had notes of her conversation with one of its customer service agents, the employee to whom Ryan had spoken was not named Pamela, and that there was no indication in the notes of any instructions to Ryan to purchase a ticket on Delta.

During this call, according to the agent’s notes, Ryan requested that the balance of her trip be protected from cancellation: “[Passenger] called and will be flying on a Delta flight to JFK and will still be traveling on AA flight.” American Airlines agreed to protect the remainder of her itinerary, although normally the airline would have treated her as a “no-show passenger” when she failed to take her originally scheduled flight from Minneapolis and canceled the balance of her trip.

Our contact at American Airlines does not believe that the airline’s agents would have given Ryan erroneous instructions to book a flight on another airline. Because there is no supporting evidence for Ryan’s story and she did fly the rest of her itinerary, American considers her case closed.

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Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Elliott.org. Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

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