Should American Airlines compensate us for an electrical problem?

Ivan Cholakov /
By | December 4th, 2016

David Rolon and nine family members booked a trip on American Airlines from Philadelphia to Puerto Rico for a family reunion. But after their flight was delayed and then canceled, they had to make other arrangements. Now Rolon wants American to pay.

When your flight is delayed and then canceled, can your airline just leave you stranded? What are the air carrier’s obligations, and what, really, are you entitled to? If you’re a U.S. domestic traveler, you won’t like the answer.

Rolon’s flight was initially delayed by an electrical problem on their aircraft. Problems like that happen, and no one wants to risk flying in a plane that has something wrong in its systems. But those repairs can take time.

In this case, the time it took to get the plane airworthy led to yet another problem. There are safety rules that limit the number of duty hours in a day for flight crews. Those duty hours include the time the crew sits around waiting for repairs such as electrical problems.

Airlines are required to make sure that flights can be completed within the time periods set by those rules. By the time the plane was ready and the passengers had finally boarded, the crew realized that they would exceed the duty hours limit during the flight. So the flight was canceled and the passengers had to disembark. All of that took seven hours.

Then, says Rolon, American just made things worse.

“After waiting in line for an additional three hours, we received a 30-second response from the customer service representative stating that there were no other flights available to Puerto Rico for several days,” he says. “When we asked about vouchers for other flights, we were told that there was nothing that American Airlines could do for us and that we would need to make our own arrangements and submit a claim afterwards. We were left scrambling and on our own.”

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Any of us who have gone through similar situations know how annoying and frustrating it can be to waste so much time waiting around the airport and to be unable to do anything about it.

You would think that the airline would want to help their customers. Rolon expected he would at least get some assistance in finding an alternative flight to his destination. But he was dealing with American Airlines, which, so far this year, has had more complaints on our site than the next four air carriers combined.

Rolon’s family finally found flights on two other airlines. But the family had to split up, with some of them having to drive from Philadelphia to Newark, N.J. for a flight with available seats.

American said they would refund the airfare for the canceled flight. However, he also wants additional compensation to the tune of $5,401 for alternate airfare and car rental costs. On top of that, he wants travel vouchers for future round-trips for each of his family members to compensate for the way they were treated. He contacted American, which declined his additional request. Now he is asking us for help.

But what is Rolon really entitled to? If you look at American’s conditions of carriage, the answer is nothing other than a refund of the unused portion of his ticket. Their conditions of carriage have a “force majeure” clause which limits their liability for issues beyond their control:

American may, in the event of a force majeure event, without notice, cancel, terminate, divert, postpone or delay any flight or the right of carriage or reservation of traffic accommodations without liability except to issue an involuntary refund. The involuntary refund will be made in the original form of payment in accordance with involuntary refund rules for any unused portion of the ticket.

Their list of force majeure events covers “any government regulation, demand or requirement.” That would include the rules covering flight crew duty hours. American’s position is that the cancellation resulted from something beyond their control and, therefore, they have no liability other than refunding a portion of the ticket. Too bad, passenger. You’re on your own.

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It would be a different story if this had been a trip that originated or ended in one of the European Union countries. The EU has a consumer protection law for air travelers known as EU 261. Passengers on such a flight would have been entitled to additional compensation under that rule. It specifies how much an air carrier must pay based on the flight distance and the length of the delay.

Unfortunately, air passengers on domestic U.S. trips don’t have those protections. We are only entitled to whatever the airlines say we are entitled to based on their own, nonnegotiable conditions. When you buy your ticket you are accepting their terms and conditions.

I fully believe that Rolon has good reason to be angry over a full day wasted and the lack of help from the airline’s agents. One could argue that American should do better by him and the other passengers. But is the additional compensation he wants reasonable? And how likely is the airline to agree?

What do you think? Should we take this case?

View Results

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Update (12/7): While waiting for us to decide whether to take this case, Rolon followed our suggestions and wrote a good letter to the American contacts who responded directly to him with a promise of vouchers to cover his additional costs.

  • disqus_00YDCZxqDV

    If he gets a full cash refund from American instead of useless vouchers he should count himself lucky

  • deemery

    I’m appalled that the force majeure clause includes crew rest! That’s not an ‘act of God’ or something the airlines can’t anticipate. By that reasoning, any safety requirement by the government that the aircraft didn’t meet would also qualify as force majeure.

  • This isn’t force majeure! They had an electrical problem that cascaded. This is considered a “mechanical” which means the obligations are different.

  • John Baker

    At at some level, AA can’t create seats where they don’t exist. Unfortunately, the last thing I read is that none of the other airlines want provide AA with seats any more since they have so many problems. This may have been the case that they physically didn’t have a way to get the LW to San Juan.

    The refund is mandated by law. AA doesn’t have a choice.

    It’s unlikely that AA will give them cash for the added expenses plus further compensation. They almost never do that. The LW might try to ask for either miles or funny money equal to their added expenses.

  • Rebecca

    The amount of extra money spent purchasing last minute flights is actually relatively reasonable. It seemed like a lot, but with 10 people flying it works out to $540/person. To purchase walk up fares on other carriers and to rent a car(s) to get to an alternate airport (which I would also assume includes a one way drop-off fee), that sounds about right.

    The problem here is that he’s requesting to fly for free and additional vouchers. That is not reasonable. What we need to know is the cost of the original flights. Then, take the $5400 and subtract the original flight cost. The out of pocket cost is what we need here. He obviously will receive a refund for the cancelled flights. So he’s asking for a windfall.

    I’d find it perfectly reasonable if he was requesting compensation of some sort for additional expenses. But the fact that he wants a free trip, plus a significant amount of vouchers to take another free trip is simply ridiculous. Of course the airline is going to ignore that request. Make the request reasonable, and it’s significantly more likely to be granted.

  • Bill___A

    American should have done better, but I think the OP is asking too much. So I said no.

  • greg watson

    I voted yes, although I feel that he is asking for too much compensation. AA could at least, as well as refunding his airfare, offer discount vouchers for future flights as a ‘goodwill’ gesture.
    I can understand if poor weather conditions were the reason the flight was cancelled, but airplane maintenance is the airlines responsibility ———- and maybe better planning would have a backup crew on standby. To me, the crew not being available, covered up the electrical problem, which AA is responsible for. No excuse for poor customer service !

  • vmacd

    Trip insurance?

  • LeeAnneClark

    This is another “yes – but” vote. Yes, he should get a full cash refund for what he paid for his American tickets, plus what he had to pay to get himself to his destination, subtracting what he was already refunded for his American tickets. (He shouldn’t be able to get to his destination for free, after all.)

    But no, he’s not also entitled to additional compensation beyond that.

    And it just ticks me off that they have the gall to claim force majeure for this! An equipment failure is NOT “outside of their control”. It means they didn’t maintain their own equipment properly. And everything that happened after that, including the expiration of the crew, was a result of their own equipment failure. They and ONLY they have control over their own equipment functionality.

    Take the case…but I highly doubt he’ll get anything other than reimbursement for his original ticket. And that will likely be in the form of flight vouchers. Good luck.

  • Charles Owen

    I have had several instances where airlines created seats that don’t exist. In those cases the flight was cancelled one evening, so the airline added a flight the next morning to handle the stranded passengers. It always too a long time for them to get around to doing that while we all waited in line seemingly forever, but they did fix the problem. Alas, that was not on American, though I’ve had it happen on both Delta and United.

  • PsyGuy

    Equipment failure is not outside the airline’s control. They should get their tickets refunded and the costs they paid on the other carriers, but that’s where the compensation ends. They shouldn’t get more than that, there lost day isn’t worth anything (life happens) and I know of no airline that would do that.

  • Koholaz

    I voted yes because he should at least get compensation for the additional costs incurred – AA didn’t get him to his destination which what what he contracted them to do. Sadly, it’s unlikely that AA will do the right thing as that ‘s not their MO. They seem to be perfectly happy to be at the top of the complaint list.

  • DChamp56

    Isn’t the “Contract of Carriage” just that, a contract?

  • Lindabator

    VERY rarely happens – that plane may be needed in another city which time conflicts with it flying into San Juan — and if the airport does not accept any flights in addition to their schedule, not gonna happen – tends to be a better option in hubs

  • Lindabator

    which clearly states they either get a refund of the AA tickets, or get a new AA assigned flight. AA refunded their portion – have no control over the new ticket costs. Unfortunately, would be the same with the other airlines – unless they know how to find options AA can assign them

  • jim6555

    It is impossible for AA to create seats, but they can find seats for their passengers using connections on their own flights and those of other airlines. AA has connections available from Philadelphia to San Juan via Charlotte or Miami. Southwest flies from PHL to Orlando and Ft. Lauderdale where connections are available. Delta offers connections through Atlanta and United though Washington Dulles. AA should have done more to help these stranded passengers reach their destination.

  • jim6555

    The flight was cancelled due to a mechanical problem, not because of weather conditions.

  • greg watson

    EU261 does not apply & I believe that I stated that they should receive vouchers for future travel, as well as a refund for the original tickets. Where did you get the $1300 from ?

  • Michael__K

    What about it? It often doesn’t cover purchasing new flights on another carrier due to mechanical delays. And even when it does, the best policies cap benefits at 150% of the Trip Cost, which this customer would have blown beyond to purchase last minute full-fare tickets.

  • Michael__K

    I wouldn’t call it a “windfall.” I’m assuming these are one-way costs. If they booked the best available fares in advance they were probably originally paying around $150/person each way or less.

    In Europe, this 10-hour delay would be worth far more compensation — they would have been entitled to 400 EUR/person, besides the cost of re-accommodation on other flights.

    In the US, they aren’t even entitled to compensation for their out of pocket costs. Other than hotel vouchers — they were contractually entitled to hotel vouchers if this was not force majeure (and it clearly was not) — and I find it hard to believe they could drive to Newark and catch a new flight to SJO after a 10-hour delay without an unplanned overnight stay.

  • jim6555

    That’s the amount that an airline would haveto pay a passenger who was involuntary bumped and arrived at the destination more than six hours after the original flight was scheduled to arrive.

  • greg watson

    where do you find that rule ? I would like to read it.

  • Rebecca

    Everything is relative. I would consider two completely free flights, plus reimbursement for meals, car rentals AND an alternate flight to be a windfall. I didn’t say he is entitled to nothing. I said he wasn’t entitled to two sets of free flights+. That’s unreasonable, and it’s going to get an unfavorable, if any, response. Relative to what happened, it simply isn’t reasonable.

  • Michael__K

    Two completely free flights? You must mean “one”.

    Under US law and AA’s contract, he really is entitled to nothing. Other than potentially a hotel voucher.

    Under EU law, he would be entitled to more than what you see as an unreasonable windfall.

  • jim6555
  • greg watson

    According to jim6555 in a previous comment here, the D.O.T. has a provision of $1300 compensation (per traveller) for this situation. Can you advocates confirm this ?

  • greg watson

    Thank You

  • Rebecca

    No, I see it differently. I actually like EU261 in the sense that it spells out rules. He would be entitled to the €400 and a refund, assuming he simply canceled and rebooked his own flights. And that’s precisely the approximate amount he’s due. He’s asking for a refund of the canceled flight (which no one would argue he’s due, I’m sure), then cash compensation for the new flights with incidentals, and vouchers for another flight. The €400 is less than the cost of the new flights with incidentals and the vouchers. It’s about $430. He wants $540 AND thousands in vouchers.

  • Michael__K

    400 EUR/person + full refunds for all passengers + meals & phone calls for all passengers (if not also hotel accomodations) would easily surpass $5,401.

    True, he’s also asking for vouchers, but not for any particular amount. I don’t think that’s a good justification for ignoring him, if they are really willing to offer any compensation. In a negotiation, if the other party makes what you think is an ‘unreasonable’ offer than the better response is to make an equally ‘unreasonable’ offer in the other direction to eventually meet in the middle. I suspect AA isn’t interested in offering anything regardless of how much the customer negotiates with themselves.

  • greg watson


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