A trip in vain that ends with an unpleasant surprise

By | February 19th, 2017

When Paul Whittall plans a trip for his son on American Airlines, he is disappointed when it becomes a trip in vain. A canceled connection with no available flights leaves only one option — to return home. American offers a voucher — but that is not enough.

Question: I bought a ticket for my son on American Airlines so he could join us in celebrating my father’s 80th birthday. He flew out on Dec. 16 from Sacramento to Phoenix and was scheduled on a connecting flight at 12:50 a.m. on Dec. 17 to Orlando. When he arrived in Phoenix, his connecting flight was canceled by American Airlines because of a mechanical issue. American sent him back home — it had no other flights available.

When I contacted American for a refund, it would only offer a voucher for a trip in vain. I am extremely disappointed that my son missed his grandfather’s party, and now I am unable to get my money back. My son does not have any travel plans in the future, so the voucher is of no value.

Can you help me in getting a refund? — Paul Whittall, Fair Oaks, Calif.

Answer: I understand where you are coming from. The trip in vain is a source of controversy between airlines and passengers, because there are no clear-cut policies governing it. It falls into a mysterious area that the airlines seem to be aware of but are not broadcasting it to the public.

A trip in vain is the terminology used to describe a trip that has become meaningless because of a flight delay or cancellation. If the sole purpose of travel is to attend a meeting or a scheduled event, and a flight change causes you to be substantially late or miss it completely, the trip will not accomplish anything. It would be considered “in vain” to continue on to your destination.

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When situations like this arise, airlines resort to the policies that are set in place for flight delays or cancellations. An airline’s course of action is also determined by whether or not the problem is within its control. There are no official policies on a trip in vain.

According to American Airlines, when a flight is canceled, passengers have the option of rescheduling their ticket for a later date or requesting a full refund. You can find American’s terms and conditions on its website.

In your situation, you requested a refund, but the representative from American said you were only eligible for a voucher and added, “For trips in vain, our policy is that we provide a travel voucher.” In reviewing American’s policies (as well as those of several other airlines), I could not find any reference to the “trip in vain” policy that was being referred to.

Since your son’s connecting flight was canceled because of a mechanical issue, he would be eligible for a refund under American’s cancellation policy. Even though he flew the first leg of the trip, he never made it to the agreed-upon destination. A flight ticket is a contract between the airline and the passenger. When the airline is unable to fulfill its obligation, it is defaulting on the contract. If the airline refuses to provide the passenger with a refund, it is not acting in good faith, which will ultimately damage its credibility.

The passenger should be given the option of choosing a refund or a voucher for a canceled flight. This should also apply if the flight is delayed by more than 120 minutes because of a schedule change caused by the airline. A voucher comes with restrictions, and if it is lost or stolen, it cannot be replaced. Vouchers are non-transferable (cannot be given to someone else or resold), are valid for one year only, and cannot be used for services, upgrades, preferred seat charges, fees, and more.

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For future reference (or for those who may encounter a similar difficulty), whenever a flight is delayed or canceled, thus negating the reason for your travel, contact the airline immediately (by phone or at the ticket counter) to request a refund. The airline representatives should be aware of the problem and may be more likely to offer a favorable solution. If you decide to reschedule your ticket for a later date, request that the changes be made without an increase in airfare or added fees.

With regard to the situation with your son, we are glad you turned to Elliott.org for support. When our advocates got in touch with their contact at American Airlines, he informed them that American’s official stance is to give vouchers only for trips in vain. However, he agreed to make an exception on your behalf. The voucher will be voided and a refund will be issued.

That’s the surprise — now here comes the unpleasant part. American is not really making an exception. The flight was canceled for reasons within the control of the airline and there were no other fights available. A refund would be in order regardless of whether it was a trip in vain.

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