I invoke the “Flat Tire Rule”! That’s definitely a thing, right?

If you’re going to invoke an airline rule, first make sure that it actually exists.

In this case, trying to force an airline to comply with the so-called “Flat Tire Rule” didn’t help Irfan Baig. And while we can’t help him get a refund on a nonrefundable ticket, his case can help our readers.

Before we get into the details of his problem with Etihad Airways, let’s review what some people mistakenly think is a rule. The idea is that if you miss your flight due to something unavoidable, like a flat tire, airline agents will put you on the next available flight at no extra charge.

As much as we may wish otherwise, there is no such enforceable rule that we could find. It may be an optional practice or courtesy at some airlines, and may have been a rule with some of them at one time, but you will be hard-pressed to find it in the published terms and conditions of airlines today.

That misinformation is part of Irfan Baig’s complaint. Along with his wife and 18-month-old child, he was planning to fly from San Francisco to Mumbai, India, on Etihad. However, they were delayed getting to the airport.

From where we live, to get to the airport that day took about two and a half hours as opposed to a normal travel time of 50 minutes as we encountered some accidents on the way. When we frantically reached the airport well before the flight time there was no Etihad guest counter/representative available.

But did he really get to the airport early enough to check in for his flight? In his rambling complaint to the airline, he says something important: “Finally, one person who looked like an airport employee said that all the Etihad agents have gone and they are probably at the gate as they closed the counter one hour prior to departure.”

We have no way of knowing when Baig and his family actually got to the airport. But his statement shows that he was trying to check in less than one hour before the departure time for an international flight. The website for San Francisco International Airport recommends arriving three hours before departure time for international flights. And Etihad, in its terms and conditions, says:

Check-in Deadlines are different at every airport and you are required to inform yourself about these Check-in Deadlines and honor them. We reserve the right to cancel your reservation if you do not comply with the Check-in Deadlines indicated.

With the check-in counter already closed, Baig tried frantically to phone Etihad but found himself caught in a frustrating loop of confusing menu options on their answering system. By the time he finally connected with a person, he was told that the agents were already boarding the flight, that he was too late, and that he would be considered a no-show.

That was when he tried to invoke the flat tire rule. The Etihad representative said no. About a year ago, we had a similar case of a traveler trying to invoke that rule after missing an Etihad flight out of New York. The airline’s response in both cases was the same.
The agent told Baig that that he could be booked on a later flight to Mumbai out of Los Angeles, but that would be at a last-minute ticket price that was many times higher than what he had paid.

When he asked about rebooking the flight he had missed for the next day, he was quoted a total fare, including change fees, that was more than twice what he had paid. He eventually used his smartphone to find a much cheaper fare on another carrier leaving that same day, and the family made it to Mumbai.

When he got home, he wrote a very long and angry email to Etihad. He should have followed our pointers for how to write an effective complaint letter. His rant referred to the flat tire rule and ended with a request for “a refund on these tickets as a courtesy which would suggest someone at Etihad cares.”

The airline’s reply was very polite but firm in denying his request. It cited Etihad’s terms and conditions, reminding him that it is the passenger’s responsibility to get to the airport at the proper time for check-in and boarding. The reply also said that his unused tickets could still be utilized and would be valid for one year from date of issue.

Baig didn’t like the response he got from the airline, so he contacted us, asking for help getting either a refund or an airline credit, as he put it, “with a long validity.”

Unfortunately for him, we think Etihad is on solid ground with its reply. Baig could still try again with a polite and concise letter to a higher level contact from the Etihad contacts on our website. He could ask for more time to use his tickets along with a waiver of any change fees. But this isn’t a battle we want to fight, so we’re filing it as a Case Dismissed.

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About the Author
Abe started his working career as a television news reporter and newscaster before moving to corporate communications and investor relations. Now retired and having learned useful tips from Elliott.org, one of his volunteer activities is writing for us. Read more of Abe's stories here.
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