Shouldn’t airlines make their websites easier for seniors to use?


When Henry Milnark inadvertently purchases priority boarding for his wife during American Airlines’ online check-in process, his wife is told to request a refund online. But American responds that the fee is nonrefundable. Can our advocates help the Milnarks recover the fee? And should American simplify its website?

Question: My wife was traveling from Cleveland to Dallas on American Airlines. I used American’s website to process her check-in and found the online check-in process confusing. I meant to indicate that my wife would be traveling with one piece of baggage, but somehow I ended up purchasing priority boarding for her instead for $32.

My wife asked the American Airlines agent in Cleveland if we could get the $32 refunded to my credit card. The agent told her that we could obtain a refund for that fee, but American could not issue it at the airport terminal. We would have to request a refund through the airline’s website.

I requested a refund for the priority boarding fee through the website, but today I received an email note stating that American can’t refund the $32 fee. I wish the American Airlines gate agent had told my wife this instead of telling her to submit a request online.

This happened because I had a hard time using American Airlines’ website, which I’d never used before. My wife and I think airlines need to make their sites more “consumer-friendly.” Not everyone is proficient with the Internet, especially senior citizens like ourselves. Can you help us recover the priority boarding fee? — Henry Milnark, Chagrin Falls, Ohio

Answer: I agree with you that a confusing website that repeatedly traps passengers into paying for one thing when they meant to purchase something else isn’t customer-friendly. And American Airlines’ customer service ought to redesign it so that booking and payment options are presented more clearly — for passengers of all ages.

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But your case is a warning to be careful when using websites to make purchases or perform any other actions that could have an adverse impact on your wallet. Don’t click any buttons on a website until you’re sure of what you’re doing. If you have any doubts, it’s best to call or visit the company to make the purchase or check-in rather than run the risk of incorrectly processing your transaction.

American Airlines’ contract of carriage indicates that priority boarding fees, which are listed under “Optional products and services,” are refundable to passengers who are bumped from flights (also known as “involuntarily denied boarding”), but it doesn’t clarify whether the fees are refundable at any other time.

If American allowed your wife priority boarding despite it not being your intention to purchase it, it could validly claim that your wife did receive service for the value of the fee. It could also claim that you should have exercised more caution during the online check-in process. Either way, it technically doesn’t owe you a refund for the fee.

You could have escalated your complaint to higher-ranking executives of American Airlines using our contact information for American, but you turned instead to our advocates.

As you were the second airline customer to write to us this week about American’s online check-in process, and the other customer also confused prepayment for baggage with priority boarding, we reached out to American Airlines with your request for reimbursement of the fee. American has agreed to issue you a refund for $32.

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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.

  • finance_tony

    Why must it always be someone else’s fault? Instead of saying, “I made a mistake,” it’s turned into a “The internet should be easier for people who never use the internet” argument, completely abdicating responsibility for making a mistake. Own up to it.

  • Bill

    exactly … if one finds something confusing on a website, pick up a telephone and call. yes, it’s going to cost more (most likely) but it’s either figure out the confusing part, pay more and call the company or take your chances. One’s inability to navigate or understand websites can be the fault of nobody but the person trying to navigate or understand.

  • Chriscfrn

    I retired from IT recently and I have to say that many, many websites do no undergo through usability testing before launching. I know that those who were not brought up around computers can have difficulty in understanding many of the options and processes. To blame the user is the same as saying that if someone cannot decipher a manual for an appliance written in technical terms, it’s their fault if they press a wrong button. I hate to say use the term “dumbing down” but to reach a large and diverse audience, companies that pretty much force you to use the website (or be charged additional fees for talking to a living, breathing human) need to be cognizant of the abilities of a wider audience than just the tech-savvy.

    Since this issue has been reported more than once, I would wager it happens pretty often is just another way for the airlines to grab the money and run while insinuating that it’s our fault for being stupid.

  • Tigger57

    Agreed!

  • cscasi

    I believe if people have trouble navigating, in this case an airline’s website, take the time to call the airline and have one of its agents help you. Usually, if you explain you have little or no experience in booking tickets, paying for baggage or making seat reservations, the airline representative is allowed to help you without charge. I know, I have done it several times over the past few years whenever I have been unsure about something (you are right, not all airline websites are equal; some are better and easier than others). I always asked if there would be a charge for helping me since I was having problems and there never was.
    However, if the airline still wants to charge you for helping, then you can always pay the fee or decline and go to a travel agent who will also charge you a fee.

  • KennyG

    Because in this day and age, personal responsibility is a four letter word for many people. In this LW’s case, I guess they forgot that Alexander Graham Bell invented something called the telephone. If you are not “internet ready”, or even if in fact the company has a confusing website even for the internet “savvy”, then call the airline directly, or call a travel agent directly.

  • SirWIred

    It’s not a remarkable statement to make that many websites are less than 100% user-friendly. But on behalf of my grandma, who is sharp as a proverbial tack, being a senior citizen is not an inherent disability, and is not an excuse for anything. If they don’t feel comfortable using the Internet, that’s on them, and they should avail themselves of another option. (As a side-note, if they DID have a disability, such as vision problems, the airlines are supposed to waive fees for using the phone.)

  • James

    I have worked in the software industry since before the web. I’ve written books on web design. I’d say that fewer than 10% of the web sites out there are well designed, including airline web sites. Some are downright confusing, even to me. If I have trouble understanding what is going on, then I am not surprised someone with less experience is confused by some sites.

  • Alan Gore

    What happens often is sudden changes to the site for some promotion or partner tie-in, implemented in haste by outsourced web techs plowing through poorly documented skeins of Drupal, shoehorning in a change not properly integrated with the rest of the site. This is when the user sees calendar controls that jump to a date other than the one he entered and fill-in pages that crash with cryptic error messages like “Guru Meditation.”

  • Steve Rabin

    And I wonder if some are deliberately confusing, to catch some unsuspecting and naive people into paying more than they should. For example: making people think they must pay for a seat assignment on many airlines, where the reality is they are paying for a ‘better’ seat further forward…they would get a seat assignment for free anyway.

  • Hanope

    My understanding is that he was trying to ‘check in’ for the flight. Can you do that over the telephone? Can a travel agent do that? Maybe he should have just waited and helped her at the airport. While these days many airlines use kiosks, there’s usually someone there to help out.

  • KennyG

    From the LW…”This happened because I had a hard time using American Airlines’ website, which I’d never used before.” So he obviously had purchased the tickets on the phone or from a travel agent as his “checking in” was the first time he had encountered the AA website. As I had said, if you dont understand how to use the website, pick up the telephone and call your travel agent or the airline. They can, at worst, walk you through the website and make sure you enter information correctly or check off the correct “box”, or at best, depending on the airline and what you are attempting to do, actually take care of your needs directly for you. Not sure where what I said is contradictory to any of the points you are making.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    He could 1) call AA to ask for assistance on his wife online check-in; 2) do a Live Chat (if AA has one) to ask for help or 3) wait until his wife arrived at the airport to check-in.

  • Lindabator

    correct – and yes, as an agent, I process these for those clients who find it difficult

  • Lindabator

    she may have booked it online, or it may have been the first time he used it to checkin

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    The OP acknowledges making a mistake, but contends the proximate cause of the mistake is AA’s poorly designed website. I haven’t used AA’s website for a while, so I’d be interested to know if there is a final summary before charges that clearly connects each fee to each service.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    “I agree with you that a confusing website that repeatedly traps passengers into paying for one thing when they meant to purchase something else isn’t customer-friendly.”

    Again, without having screen shots of the webpage, how can you pass judgment on the AA website of being ‘confusing’ and the OP is without ‘fault’? Some websites (in general not specifically airline websites) can be confusing as well as there are users that should be using the telephone, e-mails, etc. to place orders, make inquires, etc.

    “Not everyone is proficient with the Internet, especially senior citizens like ourselves.”

    If you are not proficient with the Internet then don’t use the Internet (get someone else to make your purchases, etc.) UNTIL you are proficient with the Internet. By the way, I find it ‘amusing’ that the OP was unable to use the Internet to check-in on the AA website but was able to contact Elliott via the Internet.

    Also, I find this state of “especially senior citizens like ourselves” offensive and reek of identify politics of putting ALL senior citizens in the basket of being computerInternet illiterate; feeble minded; unable to learn new things; etc. I know several senior citizens that are computerInternetphone appstech proficientliteratecompetentsavvy.

  • KennyG

    Again, no personal responsibility. Actually though, I believe he stated the proximate cause of his mistake was that this was the first time he had used the AA website. The contention that it was confusing is subjective. Thousands of people a day use the AA website, some make mistakes, some not, and the LW used his subjective opinion of the AA website as an excuse to not actually take personal responsibility for the mistake he acknowledges making. Perhaps we should have every company have separate websites for people to use based on age, IQ score, or any of a myriad number of reasons.

  • Michael__K

    How do you know he didn’t discover the mistake only at the airport?
    Of course the airport agent gave him bad information, and a phone agent is no less likely (probably much more likely) to provide bad information.

  • Michael__K

    What’s the point of pocketing the $32, for a service the customer didn’t want and may not have used?
    Instead of applying the payment towards the baggage fee?
    What’s the purpose of being so inflexible?
    And if personal responsibility is really what’s important to you, then why no mention of the bad information from the airport agent? Is that not something anyone should take personal responsibility for?

  • Michael__K

    My reading is that he probably had no idea he purchased the wrong extra service until he was at the airport in front of the agent and trying to check the bag.

    BTW, it’s hard to take this pounding of the “personal responsibility” drum seriously when it’s consistently, selectively, and narrowly invoked purely against customers. For some reason this drum is never pounded in response to employees who give customers bad information (of course employees never give bad information, it’s just that entitled customers are always lying about the bad information they receive).

  • Michael__K

    I find it ‘amusing’ that the OP was unable to use the Internet to check-in on the AA website but was able to contact Elliott via the Internet.

    Yeah, no one who can do a Google search or use email has ever been thrown off by a sub-optimally designed online form.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    Post a screen shot of the webpage showing that it is confusing or let the readers decide if it is confusing. Personally, I use the AA website and it is clear to me and not confusing for booking tickets, checking-in, etc.

    I can’t speak for other readers but if a company makes a ‘mistake’, I will put the onus on them. I have been reading this blog for over 10 years and the majority of readers’ comments are “the OP is a saint, faultless, innocent, etc. and the company is the devil, is evil, is at fault, etc.” and the amazing thing that not all of the facts are not even disclosed in the article.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    Post a screen shot of the webpage that the OP is confusing so that we can judge instead making comments without the facts.

  • Michael__K

    You mean you haven’t already expressed numerous judgments?
    I would love to review the page and post screenshots but I don’t have any way to access that screen. If you are willing and able then please do so.

  • Michael__K

    I’d be delighted to post a screenshot if I could. As I recall, you didn’t think their old “Hold” button was confusing when it was not necessarily even visible other than by scrolling horizontally on some common monitor/browser window sizes.

    Instead of trying to cover 10 years at once, why don’t we start with smaller units of time. For example, where are the majority of comments calling “the OP [..] a saint, faultless, innocent” on this article? Or how about across all the articles this week?

  • Kevin Nash

    How do you know that they didn’t want or use priority boarding? We only have their word and we have no idea whether it was a case of second thoughts.

  • KennyG

    Certainly if it is too much to take for you to hear LW’s being criticized for not taking personal responsibility for their own mistakes [in many cases openly admitted to], then perhaps this blog/advocate site is not the place that you should be spending your time. Different people have different opinions, and if you find it too painful to hear opinions that differ from your own, perhaps there is a different issue you might need to deal with. There are more than enough commenters on this site that consistently, no matter what the story might be about, completely ignore the actual issue that the advocates are trying to help with, and simply use their comments to 99.9% of the time take shots at companies. Companies/big business get bashed far more often on this site than the consumers do, IMHO. Also, in this case, you might want to reread the LW’s statement. He did not try to check the bag at the airport only to find out while in front of the agent he bought the wrong service. He stated that had used the AA website for the very first time to check in his wife, who later found out at the airport she was being charged for a service she did not want, but that her husband had mistakenly bought for her while on the AA website. The husband admitted he had done that, but blames the AA website [which he had never used before according to his own words] for not being senior citizen friendly. That of course is just my reading, which obviously differs from yours.

  • Michael__K

    You can express any opinion, critcism or outrage you want. And I can express my opinion why I don’t take it seriously.
    You aren’t entitled to invent your own facts however. Precisely which words in the article establish that the customer had any idea that this $32 charge for priority boarding existed before he arrived at the airport?

  • KennyG

    He never arrived at the airport. Read what he wrote again. He had no idea what he was doing when he used the AA website because the AA website is not senior citizen friendly. His wife, who was the one flying found out about the 32 dollar mistake when she went to the airport. You are correct about inventing facts, which you hve now done twice in this part of the thread.

  • Michael__K

    You still haven’t quoted any exact words from the article. I wonder why.

    Sure, he “found the online check-in process confusing.” No one has said otherwise. But precisely how did you determine when he discovered that there was a $32 charge and when he determined that this charge was for priority boarding and not for luggage?

  • KennyG

    I am not sure if you are just stringing me along because you get off by doing that, but read the LW’s letter again, or pay attention to my 2 recent replies to you. Here are a few quootes for you since you dont seem to want to learn the facts for yourself…”My wife was traveling from Cleveland to Dallas on American Airlines. I used American’s website to process her check-in and found the online check-in process confusing. I meant to indicate that my wife would be traveling with one piece of baggage, but somehow I ended up purchasing priority boarding for her instead for $32.” See, he wasnt traveling, it was his wife that was traveling, so she needed to be checked in, which he did for her but found the AA website confusing and he mistakenly purchased for $32 priority boarding, instead of indicating she had 1 piece of luggage to check. Another “My wife asked the American Airlines agent in Cleveland if we could get the $32 refunded to my credit card. “. So again, he didnt find out about his mistake until his wife was at the airport checking in and found out. Do you need more?

  • Michael__K

    “So again, he didn’t find out about his mistake until his wife was at the airport checking in and found out”

    Funny, I thought you were insisting that he knew beforehand and should have called to resolve the mistake beforehand.
    If you agree that he didn’t realize he made a mistake until after the bag was in front of the airport agent, then why would he make a phone call? People encounter confusion and error messages with online forms all the time. But if they finally get through the screens and aren’t aware they made any mistake then what would they be calling about? To give feedback to the UI team?

  • KennyG

    He said he found the AA website extremely confusing to use. Once you are in that situation, and not sure of what you are doing, no matter it being the consumers fault, or in fact a website is by design extremely confusing, then one should probably pick up the phone and call the airline or the travel agent. My comments about personal responsibility have to do with the fact that even though he readily admitted to having made a mistake, his contention was the cause was the fault of the airline not having a senior citizen friendly website [whatever that means] and so he was unwilling to take personal responsibility for his part in making the wrong selection, and instead both he and his wife blamed to airlines website. If you want something from someone, or from a business, many times it will result in a better outcome by admitting you made an honest mistake [assuming thats what happened] and ask the airline [or any business] to “forgive” the mistake as opposed to blaming them and still expecting a refund. Jennifer [our advocate] herself said “Don’t click any buttons on a website until you’re sure of what you’re doing. If you have any doubts, it’s best to call or visit the company to make the purchase or check-in rather than run the risk of incorrectly processing your transaction”.

  • Michael__K

    It sounds good but that’s not a very realistic approach.
    I’m not a senior citizen and I develop web applications professionally and even I encounter confusing-to-use web pages all the time. It would be a thoroughly paralyzing waste of time I were to stop and dial a call center to ask for help every time I encountered a confusing UI. Besides the fact that phone interactions with overseas call center agents can easily be more mistake and miscommunication prone than confusing web pages. I call when I’m completely stuck after many efforts or if there’s a mistake or error that doesn’t seem to be resolvable any other way.

  • MarieTD

    I find that calling for help leads to more confusion and errors. I don’t know why this site is so full of nay-sayers and fault-finders.

  • KennyG

    Possibly because there are lessons to be learned from how to handle a situation correctly, and how to handle it incorrectly. Of course, you are entitled to the opinion that the consumer is always right and the business/company is always wrong, so never point out what the consumer may have done wrong/could do better, but then no one learns from the mistakes others may have made. Living in an echo chamber, in this case where you want to never hear a differing viewpoint, does not offer much of an opportunity to learn. And you are right of course about calling for help. Why reach out to someone that might be able to help to avoid a bad situation. This LW certainly handled everything 100% perfectly [except for the fact that he admitted he was extremely confused by the website]. No way anyone else might have been able to help him accomplish what he wanted.

  • KennyG

    I am a senior citizen, and spent 30+ years managing international IT development and support departments as a CIO , but started out as a programmer and analyst. I still get phone calls from friends all over the country to help them figure out problems with their PC’s , how to interact with a confusing or poorly designed or buggy web site [of which there are many] etc. But you make the point that you are also an IT professional, your mind is trained by experience to logically go from step to step to help you analyze and figure out what steps to take next even though you may scratch your head initially. I dont disagree that at times, winding up on the phone with someone in a call center not very conversant in English, or worse, a support person that simply reads from a script and whose primary goal is to not have to do anything and be sure to blame anything that goes wrong on user error, is extremely frustrating and fraught with potential problems. But here we have someone without your [and my] years of working through these types of problems, that admitted to basically having no idea what he was doing. It is not a reflection on his intelligence, simply that he does not have your [or my] particular skill set or experience. As I used to say to my people.. try to figure out why something isnt working on your own, but when you reach a point that you truly just don’t “get it” or are staring at the wall in front of your desk, ask for help. The LW IMHO reached that point long before you or I might and might have been better off if he did reach out for help.

  • Michael__K

    “But here we have someone without your [and my] years of working through these types of problems, that admitted to basically having no idea what he was doing. “

    You are making a big leap from “he found the online checkin-process confusing” to “he had no idea what he was doing.” And you are further assuming, that even if “he had he no idea what he was doing”, that he was self-aware of this *at the time*.

    All of these conclusions are presumptuous, especially without a concrete understanding of the fine details of exactly how things went wrong. My general point is that we all encounter UI’s we find confusing on a regular basis, and we generally get through them okay without help from call centers and without great mishap. And the alternative of always picking up the phone before interacting with any “confusing” screens is impractical for all sides. And when there is a great mishap, it’s unusual even for novice users not to immediately notice some obvious indication of this. It’s also unusual that the advocates got two separate complaints about something like this in a short period of time. Which doesn’t prove anything but it does hint at the possibility that there’s something going on that even people who think they know what they are doing are missing.

  • jerrymandel

    Is it too much to expect (literate) people *of any age* to be careful what they click on? The priority boarding and baggage fees are clearly labeled. I agree with finance_tony.

  • KennyG

    ” I used American’s website to process her check-in and found the online check-in process confusing. “. Sounds to me like he was “self-aware at the time”.
    I dont believe I said that anyone should always pick up the phone without taking some time to work through the UI screens if they are experiencing some difficulty in understanding, in fact I said quite the opposite when I used the example of programmers that worked for me; make an effort to figure things out, but at some point reach out for help if you cant make your way out of the confusion.. And if, as you posit, there was possibly something inherently wrong with the site design, as I said earlier, whether it is due to consumer ignorance or the companies faulty design, or any other issue, an error is an error and at some point, it is time to ask for help to possibly avoid making that error.

    I think we have beaten this to a pulp, in general we seem to agree on some of the gross points, but not at the detail level, so lets leave it at that.

  • Michael__K

    Notice that you’re also assuming now that he was aware of some persistent error that he couldn’t work his way out of. The fact that he completed the check-in process implies otherwise, that he believed he did work his way out of whatever the confusion was…

  • KennyG

    Nope, Nada, wrong, incorrect, mistaken, I never said that, in fact have said exactly the opposite several times in this back and forth with you. For an incredibly intelligent person, you seem to have great trouble in actually reading what I have repeatedly said and assuming that I said something I did not. I have said repeatedly [which means many times] that he found out he made the mistake sometime after he made it, when his wife was at the airport and realized that the husband had bought priority boarding mistakenly. What he was “self-aware” of was the fact that he was having trouble using the confusing to senior citizens website. If in fact, he was “self aware” that he had made the purchase mistake at the time he was checking her in, then he is doubly guilty of not taking personal responsibility since he knew he made a mistake and did nothing to fix it on a timely basis.

  • Michael__K

    I’m just going by your own words:

    at some point reach out for help if you cant make your way out of the confusion [..] an error is an error and at some point, it is time to ask for help”

    You can’t seem to wrap your mind around the possibility that he took “some time to work through the UI screens” just like you say he should have, and that he believed he succeeded.

  • KennyG

    Of course he believed he succeeded. I said that over and over again.

    Find another dead horse to beat. I should have ended this long ago knowing the person I was attempting to have a conversation with is well known on the site as …..

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/62b2e635a8d38b7ccf4ea6facb410086ea0a99898569f5f75b50cba2bc8ef320.jpg

  • Michael__K

    Hypocrisy. You contradict yourself and then you resort to childish insults.
    He can’t simultaneously believe that he succeeded and that he had no idea what he is/was doing.

  • KennyG

    Whatever you say. Now time for you to find someone else to play your stupid games with.

  • Michael__K

    Keep digging and insulting. It’s your own words:

    “He had no idea what he was doing” …
    “he was self-aware at the time” …
    “he believed he succeeded I said that over and over again” [Ed: when???]

  • KennyG

    Bye Bye.Sayonara, Shalom, Adios, dovidenia… dont let the door hit you in your butt, wouldnt want you to suffer any brain damage.

  • Michael__K

    I bet you can’t resist more childish insults.

  • pauletteb

    As a senior myself, I’m pretty darn tired of folks who play the senior card as an excuse when they screw up. If you find an airline website, heck, ANY website, “confusing,” don’t use it.

  • pauletteb

    Why do you appear to have such a problem with the concept of personal responsibility? The OP’s wife getting bad information from an airline rep in no way negates his pressing the wrong button because he found the website confusing. He lost me the second he used the senior excuse.

  • Michael__K

    It’s not the concept I have a problem with — it’s the selective and disingenuous application of it. You also don’t really know what specifically went wrong during the check-in process — but you make definitive statements about it anyway.

  • Michael__K

    We have a very good idea they didn’t want it because they asked the agent to cancel and refund it before they could have used it.
    How do you know with any certainty that the customer made a mistake as opposed to encountering a bug?

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