How to turn a “no” into a “yes” (airline edition)

Rajiv Gupta missed his recent flight from Miami to Columbus, thanks to a technical glitch, the TSA and Elliott’s Law.

American Airlines kept his money, even though it didn’t fly him anywhere that day. But Gupta’s circumstances were special — so special that our advocacy team brought them to the airline’s attention again. And again.

You know the three Ps of consumer advocacy, don’t you? Politeness. Patience. Persistence. This site is filled with stories that illustrate the importance of the first two, but rarely has a case come through that shows what a little persistence can do.

Gupta arrived at the terminal with more than enough time to check in. But it turns out American Airlines wasn’t ready for him.

“Unfortunately, the gentleman in front of us had an issue where the kiosk would not allow him to check in his bags,” he says. “He held up our line for a long time, as no agent was available to help him. Finally, when someone did show up, he was told there was a problem with his ticket. In any case, we lost more than 25 minutes before we could finish our check-in.”

He thought he was good to go. But he wasn’t.

“We were flabbergasted when we noticed that there was a line with at least 50 to 60 passengers waiting to hand over their bags to an agent — bags that were already tagged,” he says.

More delays.

Of course, his flight was at the far end of the terminal. (Elliott’s Law: When you’re running late, your flight will always be at the far end of the terminal.)

“We were perhaps 60 seconds too late and the gate was closed,” he says. “The gate agents would not let us through.”

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As Maxwell Smart would say, “Missed it by that much.”

American didn’t charge him for a new ticket, but the best it could do was to get him on a flight the next day as a stand-by passenger. He decided to buy a ticket on another carrier, and American kept his $558 in airfare.

Written appeals to American proved fruitless. The final “no” seemed a little better than a form letter, but still ended by pointing the finger at the TSA.

We are disappointed to learn about the unsatisfactory level of service provided at our ticket counter in Miami as you checked in for your flight with us.

Meeting the highest expectations of our customers is our primary goal and we are sorry we failed to deliver the level of service you expect and certainly deserve from us.

Whenever possible, we try to obtain additional manpower — either to help customers check in at the counter or to identify those customers whose flight times are fast approaching so they can be given priority. When these efforts are still not enough, we feel it is the responsibility of each customer to let us know if his scheduled departure is at hand and he is in danger of missing the flight.

There is simply no way for us to know the itinerary of each person in line and act accordingly. Still, we apologize again for this undoubtedly frustrating experience.

Additionally, as you may know, federal legislation created a government agency, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which assumed civil aviation security functions and responsibilities, including passenger screening at the security checkpoints (departure gates).

The airlines are therefore, no longer responsible for checkpoint (gate) screening as it is now handled by the TSA. Accordingly, the TSA is also responsible for reviewing and responding to all claims or complaints involving the security checkpoints (gate screening), including the incident you have described.

From our point of view, Gupta had done everything he could to reach his gate on time. His request for a $558 ticket credit wasn’t out of line, given that he had to pay a far more expensive walk-up fare to get home.

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The first response from our AA contact was a firm “no.”

I am sorry, but I am going to decline on this one. I looked up the flight. It went out with 73 passengers – the plane holds 76 passengers.

Of the 73, 53 of those originated in Miami — many had checked bags. The other 20 were connecting from other flights.

This was a Monday morning — multiple counters and kiosks were open. But of course it is the first Monday in 2016, and a lot of people are traveling. His bags were scanned and checked in at 8:34 a.m. ET. The flight wasn’t until 9:20 a.m. ET — and he had TSA Precheck on his boarding pass. He is enrolled in a trusted traveler program.

Our lead advocate, Jessica Monsell, reviewed the paperwork again and then sent the following reply to our AA contact:

Thanks for looking into it. You have better information than I do, so I appreciate you sharing those details.

The passenger wrote last month to Sean Bentel, and included some detail about the check-in process. American’s customer service department responded a month later. I didn’t share those exchanges with you earlier, because nothing stood out to me as particularly relevant.

However, now that you researched the time that the bag was tagged, I notice that the passenger said the bag was tagged but he then had to wait to turn the bag over to a single agent. I have highlighted that below. Not sure if that changes your analysis of this situation.

Looking to the response from American, it says that had he canceled the flight prior to departure, the credit for future use would be issued, valid for a year from the purchase date. I am pasting that message below.

Am I understanding correctly that because he checked in and could not get to the gate before the flight was closed, he doesn’t get to keep the credit? I just want to be sure I understand what to expect should I encounter this situation in the future.

To which American responded: “We will get back to him, and let him keep the full value of the ticket for future travel.”

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And here’s the takeaway for the rest of us: When an airline says “no,” it’s not the final answer. It’s the start of a negotiation. If the facts are on your side, as they were for Gupta, you can still get a fair outcome.

Should American have given Rajiv Gupta his $558 ticket credit?

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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.

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