American Airlines’ one-year rule strikes again

In May 2015, Martha Swain booked tickets on American Airlines from Minneapolis to Shannon, Ireland for a golf trip her husband organized for a group of friends.

Between the ticket purchase and the departure date, Swain’s husband was diagnosed with a serious form of cancer, and had to undergo major surgery, followed by chemo and radiation therapy. Unable to travel, Swain canceled their plans, and American told Swain she had a year to rebook her trip.

A year later, American now says Swain is too late.

Swain’s case raises questions about the meaning behind the seemingly arbitrary one-year-from-the-date-of-purchase rule for use of airline credits, and what consumers should do when it trips up their plans.

In July, Swain called to rebook, but American told her she’s out of luck and should have scheduled her new trip by May 2016. When she canceled, American told her she had a year. What American may not have specified is that the clock had started running when her original tickets were issued.

Swain took notes during her call with the airline and wrote down that she had a year to rebook. Swain may have had other things on her mind when she called the airline — things like her husband’s prognosis and treatment. And without having the benefit of a call transcript to review, it’s tough to say whether Swain misheard the airline representative, or whether the airline didn’t provide any explanation.

But either way, it shouldn’t matter.

Many times a month, we receive help requests from airline passengers who stumble over this same rule. And let’s be clear — while this rule exists across the board at all airlines, it’s just a rule, which was written to limit customer flexibility, to ultimately benefit the airline.

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But consider the rule’s limitations for a moment: Swain booked her trip to Ireland three months before the date of travel. In reality, she could have booked it up to 11 months in advance. Upon cancellation, that would have given her just one month to figure out how and when to use the credit.

Is that fair?

Some of you will say, yes, rules are rules. Some of you will say that she should have purchased travel insurance. And if you’re like me, you’ll say that the airline should bend the rule.

Rules are made to be bent, if not broken. Perhaps not in every case, but in some cases, yes.

Maybe I’m too sympathetic to consumers with life-altering diagnoses. Maybe I too frequently side with airline passengers. I’ll concede that. I’m a consumer advocate, after all.

But even the civil justice system with its complex Federal Rules of Civil Procedure recognizes that dismissal of a case for a procedural or administrative error may be too punitive. If this were a case in the court system, a judge would issue an order to show cause and the party would have to explain why a deadline was missed before a dismissal was deemed appropriate. The party may be given the opportunity to explain why a deadline was missed before the case was thrown out.

But airlines don’t have to be fair. They are businesses that must answer to shareholders and watch their bottom line. It should be noted, perhaps, that American’s bottom line hasn’t done too poorly in recent months.

Swain could write to American and plead her case, using the executive contacts we publish on our site.

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Or, we could write to American on her behalf, which sometimes yields a more thoughtful analysis. That’s what we did for Wayne Brumett when his daughter-in-law’s life was changed with the diagnosis of a severe seizure disorder. And it’s what we did for Paul Bisbee when he encountered the same problem after a heart attack.

But I’ll let you decide on this one.

Should we advocate for Martha Swain?

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Jessica Monsell

A writer and natural advocate, Jessica joined our consumer advocacy effort following a decade of work on behalf of air crash victims at one of the nation's largest plaintiffs' law firms. She has lived in Europe and Asia, but now calls Charleston, S.C. home.

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