What happened to my $7,662 American Airlines flight credit (and my Hawaiian dream)?!

His American Airlines flight credit disappeared just like his Hawaiian dreams.

Tom Suminski intended to redeem his stockpiled $7,662 American Airlines flight credit for a Hawaiian vacation. But he says an airline representative gave him faulty redemption instructions that led the credit to expire right under his nose.

All of it.

Now the family’s tropical dreams are in jeopardy. Suminski is asking for our help to get American Airlines to reinstate his flight credit. But is this just a lost cause?

Suminski’s case underscores the importance of ensuring that you understand the terms of any airline voucher or credit you possess. That’s especially critical if you have high-value flight credits, as Suminski did. Confusion over the terms of his vouchers caused him to ignore visible expiration dates on the paper documents. That proved to be a $7,662 mistake.

That’s a lot of American Airlines flight credit!

In April 2018, Suminski and his family received the giant credit after American Airlines canceled their scheduled flight. The airline issued paper flight vouchers rather than the modern, and much easier to redeem, eVouchers. Suminski had no idea that the physical form of these credits would cause significant problems later.

The family accepted the bundle of eight paper vouchers and Suminski tucked them safely away. He kept in mind the expiration date, which was clearly marked on each flight voucher: April 8, 2019.

By the end of 2018, Suminski’s thoughts turned to his nearly $8,000 cache of paper flight vouchers. He knew it was time to make a plan to spend them.

“In December, we booked flights to Hawaii for August 2019,” Suminski explained to me. “I gave all the information on each paper voucher to the American Airlines phone agent.”

And this is where things began to go wrong.

The agent told me that because these were paper flight vouchers, I would need to mail them to the airline. She said after American Airlines received the physical vouchers, our tickets would be issued.

Because of the high value of the vouchers I didn’t want to mail them. I asked her what other options I had. Then she told me to bring the vouchers to the airport and exchange them for the tickets. She said I must do this exchange at least two weeks before our trip. Until then our flights would be on hold.

Suminski hung up the phone and he soon received a confirmation from American Airlines of the Hawaiian trip he had booked with his flight credit. He believed all was in order for their dream vacation.

It definitely wasn’t. But Suminski wouldn’t find out the truth for several months — after the flight credits had already expired.

You can’t exchange expired flight credits for a trip to Hawaii on American Airlines

In April of 2019, Suminski received an alert of a slight schedule change to his Hawaiian flight. That alert turned his thoughts back to the pile of paper flight vouchers. He called American Airlines to confirm that he only needed to exchange the flight vouchers two weeks before the trip. This agent didn’t think he should wait.

“The woman I talked to confirmed that the reservation was still in place,” Suminski remembered. “But she suggested that I get in to deliver the paper flight vouchers as soon as I could ‘just to be safe.’ So I went the following week to the airport.”

Unfortunately, Suminski received terrible news at the airport. He had waited too long to exchange his paper flight vouchers.

“I went to the airport with all those flight vouchers and tried to exchange them for our tickets,” Suminski recalled. “I did exactly what the phone agent told me to do. This American Airlines employee told me that I couldn’t exchange expired flight credits for  our trip!”

Surprise! Your paper vouchers are suddenly worth nothing

Suminski says he couldn’t believe his ears. The American Airlines agent told him that the $7,662 in paper flight vouchers that he held in his hands were now worthless. He tried to reason with her and explained what the other representative had told him. But he soon realized he was getting nowhere. This representative was not going to budge.

The only advice that the customer service supervisor could offer Suminski was to contact the corporate office.

“She told me to write to Sean Bentel (Vice President of customer relations at the time),” Suminski remembered.

So that’s exactly what Suminski did. He was outraged by the turn of events and the loss of his giant cache of flight vouchers. Using our American Airlines company contacts, he made a plea for a review of his dire situation.

As our publisher Christopher Elliott explains in his article on self-advocacy, it’s never a great idea to go straight to the top of the executive chain. If your request is rejected, there is nowhere else to escalate.

And unfortunately, the top of the American Airlines executive chain did reject Suminski’s request.

Believe the expiration date on those paper flight vouchers

Soon Suminski received a written rejection of his request to have his American Airlines flight credit reinstated. The rejection came straight from the top.

Hello Mr. Suminski:

Thank you for contacting us. I did try to reach you by phone but was unsuccessful. I did leave a voicemail I hope you have the opportunity to review.

I’m sorry to learn you didn’t have an opportunity to use the travel voucher you received from American Airlines. However, vouchers are valid for one year and are not eligible for reissue, as noted on the original document.

Expiration dates on vouchers, coupons and similar documents are very common, and we must respectfully decline your request for an extension of your transportation voucher.

Suminski’s plans to celebrate his 20th wedding anniversary in Hawaii were quickly disintegrating. He tried to appeal the decision and once again explained the erroneous information the original phone agent gave him. But the answer was the same. Those paper flight vouchers expired on their displayed expiration date — all $7,662.

In desperation, Suminski decided that he had one last chance to save his Hawaiian vacation: The Elliott Advocacy team.

Shared confusion over these flight coupons

When I went over Suminski’s troubling tale, I could see that there seemed to be shared confusion over these paper coupons. He still had the physical copy of the flight vouchers which he forwarded to me. Clearly visible was an expiration date of April 8, 2019. Suminski attempted to exchange the vouchers at the airport on April 23, 2019. There was no question that the flight credits had expired by the time he presented them back to American Airlines.

But, there was more to this case than simply missing an expiration date. Suminski insisted that more than one American Airlines employee told him that his Hawaiian flights were protected. And he was sure that these agents told him all he needed to do was exchange the paper flight vouchers for the tickets a minimum of two weeks before the flight.

This guidance was not correct.

American Airlines transportation vouchers and eVouchers expire on the date indicated on the document. And Suminski had not presented those flight vouchers to the airline before they expired.

I hoped that Suminski had the name of at least one of the American Airlines agents. Unfortunately, he didn’t get the name of any employee(s) who gave him the incorrect guidance about the expiration date.

Things weren’t looking very hopeful for Suminski’s tropical vacation.

Can't travel on expired American Airlines flight credit
One of Suminski’s many paper flight credits with American Airlines. The April 8 expiration date is displayed.

A glimmer of hope to retrieve these credits and his Hawaiian dream vacation

Although I felt awful about Suminski’s loss, I didn’t have high hopes that I could persuade American Airlines to reissue the flight credit. But the sheer value of the loss caused me to look closer for any sliver of evidence that could prove that there was shared confusion here.

And then I found what I believed just might tip the scales in Suminski’s favor.

I took a look at the flight information for Suminski’s Hawaiian flights. The “hold” confirmation noted that it would cancel within 24 hours if payment wasn’t received.

His Hawaiian dream is in jeopardy. But why didn't the reservation cancel?
Did Suminski’s many paper flight credits really hold this American Airlines reservation for months?

But Suminski told me that the original agent asked him for all of his flight voucher numbers to hold these flights indefinitely.

Because the agent took the flight voucher numbers, he believed he had redeemed the credits and that the expiration dates were then irrelevant.

I thought I was done [with the paper flight vouchers] and that bringing them to the airport was merely a formality. If [American Airlines] had given me even the slightest indication that this would happen, I would have gone to the airport the very next day.

That seemed like a reasonable assumption to me. So I checked to see if the agent had protected Suminski’s itinerary using the transportation vouchers.

She had.

Five months after the Hawaiian flights on hold should have expired, they were still valid and awaiting the physical flight vouchers.

I knew it was a long shot, especially since Sean Bentel’s office had already sided against Suminski. But I hoped our executive contact at American Airlines might be able to give the case one more look.

Good news! American Airlines restored your flight credit! You’re going to Hawaii

I reached out to our executive contact at American Airlines and asked if the team could review the case despite the glaring problem of the visible expiration dates on the flight credit.

The reason I’m bringing this case to you is that it does seem that someone at AA must have given him this incorrect information since I can see that even today his tickets for these flights are still pending (since December 2018). So someone at AA did protect that reservation from being canceled. Is there any chance that these vouchers could be extended until August given this oddity? There is a lot of money at stake here… (Michelle Couch-Friedman to American Airlines)

Our executive contact wasn’t entirely convinced. But he explained that American Airlines is moving entirely away from the paper vouchers. Until all the paper vouchers are eliminated, the agents can protect pending flights until the passenger presents the paper document.

It would seem that the phone agent had no way of checking the expiration date of Suminski’s paper vouchers. For that reason, she might have given him the information as Suminski understood. But he never officially used the vouchers before they expired.

However, there was fabulous news coming Suminski’s way. The American Airlines executive team decided to reverse the original decision and soon Suminski emailed me the good news about his lost flight credit:

Michelle, you are a genius!

I just got a call from [an executive] at AA, and she is re-issuing me new eVouchers. I can’t tell you how happy I am.

Suminski’s next move? He immediately applied the value of his eVouchers to his family’s flights to Hawaii. Their American Airlines flight credit nightmare is officially over and their dream vacation is about to begin.

How to avoid finding yourself in a flight credit nightmare

If you have paper (or electronic) flight credits somewhere gathering dust (virtual or online), there are a few things you should keep in mind.

  • Read the terms and conditions: Make sure to read the fine print on your flight credits and vouchers. This is critical to understanding when and how you can use the value and will help avoid unpleasant surprises. The terms and conditions of American Airlines paper transportation vouchers are the same as the modern eVouchers.  Unfortunately, they are significantly more complicated to redeem. If Suminski had understood that, he might have insisted on eVouchers in the first place.
  • Believe the expiration date: Every voucher has an expiration date. Until you officially exchange it for a ticket, the expiration date is enforced. And if you fail to redeem the voucher by that date, the airline is under no obligation to extend the value.
  • Ask for employee names: Often, consumers contact our team with tales of unusual conversations with airline employees promising things that aren’t based in the policy of the airline. Without the name of an employee, it’s challenging to mediate those cases. It’s always good to make a note of the name of any company representative who gives you instructions — about flight vouchers or anything else service-related. Should a problem arise later, that name will lend strength to your complaint.
  • Spend your vouchers as soon as possible: In many ways, flight vouchers are a lot like gift cards. Companies know that a high percentage of these are never used. That’s excellent news for the company — bad news for the consumer. Spending these vouchers as soon as possible is a passenger’s smartest move. (Michelle Couch-Friedman for Elliott Advocacy)

*This article was originally published in July 2019.

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