Why did British Airways cancel my flight and leave me stranded?

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By Christopher Elliott

After a lovely trip to Scotland, Ross Smith and his family were shocked to find that British Airways had canceled their flight home in error. That mistake snowballed into an $8,500 financial headache for the Smith family.

Can we figure out what went wrong?

Question

Before the coronavirus pandemic, I visited Scotland with my family. It was an amazing trip, except for our return flights, which were booked through Orbitz.

American Airlines delayed the first segment of our outbound flight from Los Angeles to London. The airline rebooked us on another flight from London to Glasgow through its codeshare partner, British Airways.

The night before our return trip home, I was shocked to learn that British Airways had canceled our flight. Somehow, the airline had determined that we had been a no-show for our outbound flights. As a result, British Airways automatically canceled our return flight.

To get home and fix British Airways’ mistake, we had to rebook new tickets on Air France, which cost $8,500.

I would like this amount refunded, plus maybe something extra for the stress and anguish I went through when I found out British Airways had canceled our flight the night before we were scheduled to go home. Can you help? — Ross Smith, Simi Valley, Calif.

Answer

Your flights to the U.K. should have been smooth and uneventful — not the chaos you describe. This is easily one of the most complicated cases in my recent memory. Let me try to untangle this mess for our readers.

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American Airlines caused the first problem when it delayed your initial flight from Los Angeles to London. It looks like it failed to notify British Airways that you would be on the next flight to Glasgow. Unfortunately for airline passengers, airlines always automatically cancel your remaining itinerary when you skip parts of your original itinerary.

It looks like Orbitz tried its best to fix the problem but couldn’t. This case is even more maddening because American Airlines has a codeshare agreement with British Airways, which is supposed to mean you’re dealing with the same airline. Instead, American and British Airways played a game of ping-pong, bouncing you between their customer service departments as you tried to fix this.

Reaching out to airline company executives

The Elliott Advocacy research team lists the names, numbers and email addresses of American Airlines, British Airways and Orbitz (owned by Expedia) in our executive company contacts database. Those contacts make it easy for our readers to contact an airline’s company executives.

But I have to be honest: Reaching out to those executives in this case probably wouldn’t have helped. Your experience confused everyone. (Related: Can my tour operator pocket my airline refund?)

British Airways canceled your flight — that’s standard policy

I can’t believe anyone allows airlines to operate a code-sharing agreement like this without some accountability. (It’s almost as crazy as they price their tickets.) To think that you might be on the hook for $8,500 for new plane tickets is just absurd!

After a lengthy investigation, which involved months of back-and-forth between my advocacy team, the airlines and your travel agency, we got to the bottom of it. It looks like American Airlines erroneously processed changes to your ticket. That sent the wrong message to British Airways — that you’d missed your flight — and it automatically canceled your return flight.

Your case is an important reminder for the rest of us that if you miss a segment of your flight, you can’t just continue your itinerary. Your airline will cancel the rest of your flights because it assumes you’re a no-show, and it won’t tell you about it.

American Airlines offered you four $100 flight vouchers for the trouble. Orbitz kicked in another $200 in vouchers. British Airways refunded you for your return tickets and cut you a check the money you had to pay out of pocket for the Air France tickets.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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