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.

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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