Cristina Criado’s flight diverted to Panama City after a tragic accident closed the airport in Lima. Does American Airlines owe her a refund for her trip in vain — and if so, how much?
Criado wants the entire ticket refunded. American Airlines won’t do that because she already used part of her ticket.
So who’s right?
Criado’s trouble with American Airlines raises all kinds of questions.
- Do airlines have to approve your refund when they can’t get you to your destination?
- Can an airline really cancel your return ticket if you don’t follow its instructions?
- Are any of these rules spelled out anywhere — in federal law or in an airline contract?
And what, exactly, are your rights as a consumer?
Why did the airport close in Lima?
Before we get to the answers, you’re probably wondering about my use of the word “tragic.”
I’ve toned down the rhetoric on this site in the last year — there’s too much hyperbole out there already. So why would I use that kind of language?
Here’s why: On November 18, a Latam Airlines plane collided with a fire truck conducting a planned emergency drill. Two firefighters died and the airport closed. It was, in every sense of the word, a tragic accident.
The airport remained closed for two days. Airlines canceled more than 400 flights in and out of Lima.
How American Airlines responded to the tragedy
Criado knew nothing about the accident when she boarded her flight from Miami to Lima on November 18. But soon, the pilot announced that her plane was making a detour.
“While we were mid-flight, American Airlines rerouted us to Panama,” she recalls.
But when they landed in Panama City, the ground crew wasn’t sure how to handle the unexpected arrivals from Miami. Cirado and the other passengers waited. And waited.
“No one knew what to do with us and we were there for eight hours,” she remembers.
Finally, she says American Airlines canceled her flight to Peru. An airline representative told her if she tried to book her own flight to Peru, American Airlines would consider her a “no-show” and cancel her return flight.
“So naturally, I didn’t want to lose my money, so I stayed on American Airlines. They flew us back to Miami but never tried to rebook our ticket,” she says.
Will American Airlines approve her refund for this ill-fated trip?
Criado asked American Airlines for a refund. Her first contact was by phone. A representative refused to refund her tickets, saying she had used part of her ticket already.
So Criado used the Elliott Method, sending a brief, polite email to the airline asking for her money back. And that seemed to work. Here’s the response she received:
I’m very sorry we weren’t able to get you to Lima. I can certainly understand your disappointment with not refunding the correct amount.
Since you were unable to complete your trip as planned, I’ve submitted a refund request for you.
We appreciate your AAdvantage loyalty very much, Mrs. Criado, and hope to have the opportunity to welcome you on board another American flight.
Problem solved? Not quite.
American only refunded her half the ticket. She phoned the airline and a representative said that’s because she used her outbound flight — you know, the one from Miami to Lima … I mean, Panama City. (Related: I paid for tickets on the wrong airline.)
“American Airlines is holding $640 of my money hostage, saying I used my ticket,” she says.
Why is the airline stalling on a refund?
Why would American Airlines refuse to refund someone like Criado for the entire ticket?
One reason is obvious: Airlines do not like to refund tickets under any circumstances. And these circumstances were clearly beyond the airline’s control, so it stood to lose money from someone else’s accident. The bean counters probably have numerous safeguards in the airline’s internal systems to prevent that type of refund.
There’s a way around the bean counters. Here’s my guide on how to get a refund on a nonrefundable ticket.
Another reason is that the airline’s own employees remained in the dark about the circumstances of Criado’s flight.
“Apparently, no one could look up what actually happened that day,” she recalls. “And although I have spoken to many customer service representatives — who were all very condescending — I now got word that I’m not getting a refund.” (Related: Pacific Coast Airlines canceled my flight — so where did my refund go?)
American Airlines agents told her that her flight was a “trip in vain” because she didn’t reach her destination. (I’ll have more on that in a second).
“But since it shows that my plane took off, the airline assumed I reached my destination and is refusing to look into what actually happened that day,” she says.
So what’s going on here? Let’s unpack this case.
What is a trip in vain?
A trip in vain is a flight that does not accomplish its intended purpose. There are two types of trips in vain.
- Trips in vain for personal reasons, like missing a wedding or funeral. Refunds for these are typically handed by airlines on a case-by-case basis.
- Trips in vain where the flight never arrives at its intended destination. Refunds for these are typically automated, which is to say, there’s not much argument about whether passengers get their money back.
American Airlines publishes a policy on trips in vain. It says when passengers can’t get to their final destination after a diversion or after the airline flies them to an intermediate point, “they may choose to discontinue their journey and return to their origination city.”
Some examples of a trip in vain:
- If you’re flying to a connection point, but American cancels the connecting flight.
- If American diverts you to another city or cancels or delays your flight.
- If you miss your reason for traveling, like meeting or a wedding.
But here’s the catch: American says its trip in vain policy “provides the option of returning to their origination point and seeking a potential refund.”
However, it does not guarantee a refund.
In other words, American Airlines was following its published policy on trips in vain. It owed Criado nothing.
Is American Airlines breaking any laws by refusing to approve a refund of this ticket?
This is an odd case. American Airlines reportedly threatened passengers in Panama City that if they didn’t return to Miami, they would lose their return tickets.
Can they do that? Yes.
Airlines consider you a “no-show” when you don’t board a leg of your flights, and automatically cancels the rest of your ticket. This is done with the blessing of the Department of Transportation, which regulates U.S. airlines.
American Airlines could have been a little nicer about it, though — and it had the option of keeping the return flight reservations active. But strictly speaking, it broke no laws.
And what about the trip in vain? Federal regulations are largely silent on that issue.
Airlines are required to refund a ticket if it cancels a flight — regardless of the reason — and the passenger chooses not to travel. But American Airlines did not cancel the flight.
What about a schedule change or significant delay? Passengers are also entitled to a refund — but only if the consumer chooses not to travel. Threatened with the loss of her return ticket, Criado decided to travel.
This is definitely a gray area, in terms of federal law.
Here’s the airline’s final offer
Criado continued to use the Elliott Method to resolve her flight problem. She sent a brief, polite appeal to the American Airlines executive contacts I list on this site.
That yielded the following response from a customer relations representative:
I’m truly sorry to hear about your experience. It is always our goal to run a timely and reliable operation, and we are sorry to see we missed the mark on your trip.
We’re paying careful attention to the feedback our customers are providing us and the details you shared with us have been made available to our leadership to be used to improve our service.
Your business means a great deal to us, and I’d like to ask for another chance to rebuild your confidence. Given the inconvenience you faced, we’ve issued a Trip Credit for you to use on a future flight. You will receive this credit in a separate email from us soon.
From all of us at American Airlines, we’re glad you chose to fly with us and look forward to caring for you on your next journey.
Total amount of the trip credit: $50.
At that point, Criado reached out to our advocacy team.
What happened to this trip in vain refund case?
Here’s what I believe went sideways on this case.
- American Airlines, as I already mentioned, has systems in place to prevent full refunds unless they’re absolutely necessary and required by law. This wasn’t one of those cases.
- The customer relations executives who handled her case appeared to have glossed over the details of her case. This was clearly a trip in vain and American Airlines has a published policy that makes her eligible for a “potential” refund.
- The executives routed her request to another customer relations team, which tried to placate her with $50 vouchers. But that just made her angrier.
After I contacted American Airlines, it finally got it right. Here’s the email it sent to Criado:
I am reaching out to you from American Airlines. I received your correspondence and am sorry to learn you weren’t able to complete your trip to Peru and had trouble obtaining a full refund of your tickets.
I tried calling you to say I am happy to assist and am sorry I missed you. I don’t want to keep you waiting so I am following up with an email.
Your concerns regarding your refund have been reviewed and processed. The total value of $830 per ticket has now been fully refunded to your original form of payment.
Criado liked that response.
“Wowwwwwww!!!!!” she wrote. “Thank you SOOOO much!!! I don’t know what to say. Thank you!!!”
Thank you works for us. But the credit for this goes to my advocacy team, which works every day to rescue consumers like Criado.