Beware of the half-truths airlines – and passengers – like to tell

Kunertus /
Kunertus /
It would be inaccurate to say that American Airlines lied to Kori Conley’s friend when she tried to fix her airline ticket.

She needed to get home for Christmas with her kids, but someone else was paying for her ticket and they’d bungled the reservation, confusing the origin and destination airports on her itinerary.

“My friend called immediately — we’re talking right away — to let them know the error,” says Conley. “They in turn told her there would be a $200 per ticket fee — an extra $600 to fix three tickets.”

It would also be inaccurate to say the American Airline representative who Conley’s friend talked to told her the whole truth. See, under the Transportation Department’s 24-hour rule, she could have canceled her flight and made a new reservation at no charge.

Did the rep fail to mention that? Yep.

Half-truths, or lying by omission, are an epidemic in American business, and particularly in travel. And it’s infectious. Customers also occasionally leave out important details to bolster their case, and so do the people covering the industry.

Some of my least favorite customer complaints involve a blatant half-truths. I seem to be getting more and more of them lately. An angry consumer will send me a written complaint in which a key detail is left out — or even deleted from an email thread — to make a case against a company look more compelling.

Customers are notorious for doing this in response to car rental damage complaints. At first blush, it’ll look as if a big, bad claims company is coming after a renter for damage that they couldn’t have possibly done. And I have to tell you, when I see these grievances, I get upset. But then, when I ask about the case, it turns out there are timestamped photos of the damage, irrefutable evidence that the vehicle was in a serious accident.

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Case closed.

Of course, half-truths are told by more than just consumers. Sometimes, consumer advocates like me are accused of the same misdeeds. It’s true, we’re not stenographers and we have an angle (that’s why they call us advocates).

In a recent series of stories about the diminishing value of an airline credit, for example, I was charged with omitting important information about the economics of running an airline. If, one critic said, I could only help people understand concepts like “perishable commodity” (the idea that once a plane takes off, the seat can’t be resold) and “missed opportunity cost” (the concept that passengers should pay not only for their ticket, but should also compensate an airline for the missed opportunity to sell another ticket) — well, then people would understand why we had these ridiculous ticket rules.

I’m happy to refer these critics to a handful of blogs written by industry cheerleaders who do a fairly good job of explaining the economics of the airline business. But I still can’t understand why all those charts and Photoshopped images fail to persuade the average customer that airlines aren’t trying to rip us off.

Truth be told, I have a problem with the half-truths these other bloggers sometimes tell. For me, the worst errors of omission come at the end of each post. You know, that “sign up now!” ad for an affinity credit card?

If the disclaimer was completely honest, it would say: “I am going to earn more than $100,000 this year from referral fees paid by this credit card. In exchange, I will write flattering stories about the loyalty lifestyle and I will downplay any risks associated with participating in a program. As a matter of fact, this blog would not exist without this clever affiliate program ad.”

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Yeah, that’ll be the day.

Conley’s story has a happy ending. I sent him some information about the DOT 24-hour rule, which he passed along to his friend.

“My friend got all her money refunded because of your help,” he says. “I can not thank you enough.”

Who tells more half-truths?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Matt

    Not sure to which frequent flyer blogs you are referring but the ones I read have clear disclaimers about referral bonuses and also provide links to credit card and other offers that do not help them financially. Doesn’t seem like a half truth or omission to me.

    There’s about the same amount of information posted about the economics of this site. Kudos for listing the individual supporters but not much information on corporate underwriting. Frankly I’m not all that concerned but what is good for the goose is good for the gander.

  • backprop

    The airlines’ half truths affect more people at a time, but they tell a finite number of them.

    Passengers, on the other hand, dramatize, omit, lie, stretch, twist, and massage their stories far, far more.

    Examples – “customers” who work for a competing business, who forget to mention that they were drunk when thrown off the plane, who rail about the ‘tone’ of a customer service but fail to mention what was said, or who try to cobble together a flush from the Elliott Deck of Misfortune(TM), or who cite any number of verbal ‘promises’ that can’t be proven or disproven.

  • $16635417

    The DOT rule Chris linked to states the airline must allow the refund within 24 hour OR allow a hold for 24 hours. American chooses the 24 hour hold option as policy rather than the refund option.

    I think the “OR” allows the airline to choose a policy and not the customer.

  • Alan Gore

    Technology might help us here. I can see a future in which every customer-contact person working for, say, an airline, will have a “personal flight recorder” built into his/her uniform that would keep a record of the latest 24 hours of customer interaction. If a dispute arises during the day, we will know exactly what “he said and she said,” and with what gestures and tone of voice, as a situation unfolds.

    Police are already using systems like this, and the results have been highly revealing.

  • Thomas Ralph

    AA does not have to offer a 24-hour fee-free cancellation as it offers a 24-hour hold on bookings. Either is acceptable and it does not need to do both.

  • MarkKelling

    I am not understanding the difference. As long as I can cancel my booking within 24 hours and not get charged anything, is there really a difference? Or do I have to choose a different option when booking so I don’t pay immediately for the ticket and then not get a refund? (I tried looking into the details on the AA web site, but was unsuccessful.)

  • backprop

    The latter – You go all the way to the payment screen, and instead of clicking a credit card or paypal, you choose 24 hour hold.

    Once you pay though, it’s yours.

  • MarkKelling

    Of course no airline is going to tell you you can cancel your booking, get a full refund, and start over if they can get you to pay the $200 change fee! And AA answered the question that was asked: can the flights be changed because of the booking error. The AA person on the phone responded according to the script.

    I had a similar experience with UA recently. While my flight was not cancelled, many were and UA was offering the option to anyone flying to change or cancel any flight booked for that day due to the weather. I started down the change path and the agent told me that the new date I was wanting to fly would cost $175 less than the flights I originally booked. But there would be no refund of the remainder if I chose to reschedule. So I cancelled the flight, got the full refund on my card within 24 hours, and then booked the new flights and ended up saving $250 as the fare had changed again before I booked. If not for the helpful agent, I would have spent the extra money, UA would have gotten extra income from me and they might not have had to close their Cleveland hub. ;-)

  • MarkKelling

    OK, thanks for explaining. But I don’t like that option when compared to the others that let you purchase the flight and then cancel it. I don’t feel they are the same. And most people will click on purchase because they are usually fairly certain they want to fly on the dates and times and between the airports they choose.

    From the article, it appears that AA does allow a refund within 24 hours as that seems to be what happened for the OP.

  • $16635417

    I agree…I’d actually like both as well…but the DOT regulation Chris cites does not require both, but allows the airline to choose an “either-or” policy. In this case it sounds as if they made an exception to their policy.

  • Justin

    Sometimes mistakes are erroneous due to the agent’s lack of knowledge. A new agent that hasn’t dealt with a situation and unfamiliar with airline (company) policies can lead customers astray.

    I’m not justifying the actions of American Airlines. However, one bad apple doesn’t mean all are rotten. I hope Chris and parties here keep the thought in mind. Before I tend to “judge”, I make a few attempts at a resolution.

    If the answers are consistent, then admonishment is in order.

  • Justin

    You an Ohioan?

  • omgstfualready

    The last few articles have been more well balanced, leaning towards holding every party in the transaction responsible. I have been enjoying them more because of that ,thanks.

  • MarkKelling

    No. Just annoyed at the “New” UA and most of the changes they have made over the past couple years.

  • $16635417

    I’ve had the same issue with Delta several years ago. They insisted they could not refund a ticket I just purchased (prior to the DOT rule) but their web policy specifically allowed it. I had to get an agent off a script and escalate the call to a supervisor who was aware of the correct policy.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I don’t know if that’s true. American Airlines’ 24 hour hold has been there for over a decade, it’s closer to 48 hours, and is allowed an any flight, even if booked less than a week. I think it’s independent of the DOT rule

    Edited. AA’s rule predates the DOT rule, so it just kept on business as usual. But apparently its not required to give the 24 hour refund window because of it.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I much prefer AA’s policy. This way, when I am not sure about my flight, I can lock it in without tying up credit waiting for a refund. If my plans change, I don’t have to worry about cancelling my flight as it will auto cancel the next day.

    And of course, the hold option works for all flights, even those booked less than a week in advance, and in practice its more than 24 hours. If you book at 6am, you have 42 hours to actually buy the ticket

  • JenniferFinger

    I voted for airlines, but it’s a tough call-both sides tell half-truths. I chose airlines because as noted below by backprop, their half-truths affect more people. The passengers do it on an individual basis.

  • polexia_rogue

    my vote is for passangers; they lie because it serves them

    when a business “lies” 99% of the time it is not the actual business; meaning it is a poorly trained call center operator. This person in the midde of nowhere (USA, or south Asia) probably gets a book of “here is information to answer questions!”- so when someone calls and asks a question that they do not know the answer to they give the closest answer they can think of.

    such as in the article here; the call center person probably did not know about the “24-hour rule” so when the person asked to change their flight the canned response was “flight change=fee!! must pay fee!”

    this is why i always perfer chat room call centers, so if i think something is going very wrong (or they don’t understand what i am asking) i can look up more information in a seperate browser.

  • MarkKelling

    From the DOT web page:

    “[C]arriers may not deceive consumers about the 24-hour reservation requirement when consumers inquire about cancelling or changing a reservation within 24 hours of making or paying for that reservation. … [T]he failure to offer a passenger a full refund in the original form of payment in the event of a cancellation request covered by the 24-hour reservation requirement [is] an unfair and deceptive practice.”

    So it appears that AA could have been in violation of this since they did not originally inform the OP that their purchase could be refunded without fees when asked. And AA is required to refund any tickets purchased within 24 hours regardless of their stated policies on holds vs. purchases.

  • $16635417

    But since AA chooses to follow the 24 hour hold option rather than the 24 hour refund option…does this apply to them?

  • Carchar

    The call center person should be trained properly in the first place and should know about the 24-hr rule, which, to me, is a basic rule. Not giving good basic training all adds to the “lying” atmosphere.

    I could not vote,because there was no “Both” choice.

  • $16635417

    Or in this case, the agent was correct in stating there is no 24 hour refund rule at AA as they choose the 24 hour hold option as provided by the DOT. This may be a situation where the agent was not empowered to make a reasonable decision to bend the rules and it took an advocate to intervene to a higher authority.

  • Justin

    Precisely why I give my efforts a few attempts before escalating. Often, you get a script reader one or two tries. By three or four, if the results are the same after a supervisor, I begin moving up the ladder.

  • Justin

    So is the “Hold” a pre-authorization without being billed for a 24 hour period? I.E. the seat is reserved upon the assumption of a booking, but with no guarantee the booking completes? Once the 24 hour window passes, the payment is charged.

    Sounds more reasonable than fighting for a chargeback upon cancelling. Assuming changes can be made within that 24 hour window. Does AA allow modification to the ticket?

  • backprop

    You’re not automatically charged when the hold is up. The hold just goes away and the seat just returns to inventory. You have to go in and pay for the held seat if you want it.

  • Mark Carrara

    one time I messed up the difference between 12:15 am with a few minutes after noon. Within an hour I called Delta to plead for a change and was surprised when they told me about the 24 hour rule. Ok this was several years ago and I have since had several issues with them, but it least one time they did the right thing.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Doesn’t look like it. Since AA offers the hold option, it doesn’t appear that it must also offer the 24 hour cancellation option as well. This was news to me.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    My recollection is that you cannot make changes to held tickets. You can of course cancel the ticket or let it expire and make a completely new reservation.

    And the payment is not automatically charged. In fact a credit card is not even needed to hold a ticket.

  • Thoroughlyamused

    Glad you brought up how this relates to car rental damage complaints. I can’t tell you how many times customers told me, “There is NO WAY the car was damaged while I had it; you gave it to me like that.” They would often say this before I even pointed the damage out. Car rental damage claims are a lot like parking tickets; they’re easy pickins because no one likes to deal with it.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Curiously, Chris never actually intervened. When the friend received information about the 24 hour rule, hewent back to AA and secured the refund himself.

  • MarkKelling

    There is much additional verbiage in the document concerning holds and their impact on the refund process that I didn’t include because my eyes glazed over while reading it. :-)

    Basically it states that if an airline offers a hold process, and whether or not they charge for the hold (UA does charge for example), a full refund must be offered if requested by any passenger within the 24 hour window as long as the flight date is more than 7 days out at the time of registration. So I guess AA will provide the refund on request, you just have to ask for it directly and not ask about “changes” to the reservation.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Can you point to the document?

    This is what I found.

    1 In a subsequent Frequently Asked Questions document, we clarified that a carrier can choose either to hold the reservation free of charge for 24 hours or to allow consumers to cancel the reservation within 24 hours and receive a full refund and the carrier is not required to offer both options.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I didn’t find that, but I suspect that we are talking about 2 different items. My reading (albeit cursory) is that the hold period counts for the 24 hour cooling off.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Failure to tell you about the 24 hour period is considered to be an unfair and deception business practice by the DOT.

  • MarkKelling

    Details are from the PDF you can click on from this page:

  • MarkKelling

    I guess it just depends on who is reading the rule and how they choose to apply it to their situation (and the airlines will take the approach that benefits them the most). But to me, offering the “hold” and then not refunding the purchase price to the passenger if they clicked “buy now” just seems to violate the true spirit and meaning of the rule.

    I will remember to choose the “hold” option if I ever reserve a ticket on AA.

    EDIT: Posted another response with the link to the document. Waiting on moderation.

  • Lindabator

    Correct – AA just kept their hold option, with no credit card. Nice of them to still make an exception – he should have booked the flights, have them confirm and THEN pay – then no such problem!

  • Justin

    Seems reasonable. If changes are possible during the hold period, then I see no problems with the system. Pending changes are possible, I call AA’s system quite generous.

  • Justin

    Changes or no changes, the system appears very reasonable. “X” can lock up a seat on AA that cannot be sold. So if the flight were sold out, AA potentially loses revenue while a traveler determines whether or not to book.

    Theoretically, if too many people hold, a plane might be artificially booked. Appears the policy is PRO CONSUMER unless I’m reading into the rules wrong.

    I can 24 hour hold a ticket, not pay if I change my mind, and be out nothing. AA bites the bullet.

  • VoR61

    Just heard that Virgin Atlantic will be charging $41 to reserve a seat, which, of course used to be a given (included). So I wish that airlines would just tell us what they need (in $$$) and then charge us that instead hiding behind fees.

    I have heard that each time airlines try to raise fares $7-10 they back off because people stop flying. Seems like nonsense to me. Really? You’d stop flying altogether OR choose another airline over $7?

    So, will the REAL travelers/airlines please stand up (from the old TV show “To Tell the Truth”)?

  • $16635417

    In my travel agent days I remember a guy who refused to pay $10 more than what he expected for a Chicago-New York trip. They were sold out of the $69 fare and the price was now $79. He said “for that price, I may as well drive.”

  • VoR61

    At that price, sounds like a while ago (decades at least). But no matter, I’d pay it. Now $100 or more is another thing entirely …

  • MarkKelling

    From what I heard, it was not that people just quit flying when prices are raised its just that not every airline follows along and raises their prices too so those that did drop back.

    Seems to me that if I was selling a product and it costs me $10 more to make a profit and I price it that way, I wouldn’t really care if the store across the street raised their price too. But for airlines it comes down to who gets placed first in the list on the many online travel sites – they all want to be first on the list so they don’t want to raise their prices and the one with the lowest price always gets listed first. Many travelers will pick the first one no matter what simply because it is the lowest price without ever looking at the actual route to be flown or anything else.

    I think people who chose a flight solely on price (unless they really can’t afford $10 more) are short changing themselves. Sometimes that extra $10 buys you a whole lot more – shorter flights with less connections being one.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Yup. I agree. AA has a very pro consumer approach. It’s even better in that the hold can be up to 47hrs, 59min. And in the price goes down during the hold period, they will automatically give you the lower price. Happened to me more than once.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Alas, that’s the real reason why air travel is in such a state that it is. Forgot the pundits who bemoan greedy airlines. This is freshman economics. Nay, it’s high school remedial ed, economics. When American charges $100 for a route and United charges $101, everyone buys from American. United will do whatever it takes to be able to charge $99.00. If it has to cut food and beverage service, pack them in tighter, remove pillows, whatever. Them American has to do the same so it doesn’t lose all its business to United.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Agreed. But unfortunately, coach air traffic has become commoditized. When a product becomes a commodity, price becomes the major selling point.

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