Why won’t American Airlines refund my son’s airfare?

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By Christopher Elliott

Even though Sampath Radhakrishna cancels his son’s American Airlines ticket within 24 hours, his refund is missing in action. Now his credit card bill is due. Can the airline expedite the refund?

Question

I recently booked a flight for my son to fly from Los Angeles to Madrid through American Airlines’ website. Within 24 hours, I canceled the flight. My son spoke to American Airlines on the phone, and was told the refund will be credited to his credit card “soon.”

It’s been more than a month. My credit card payment is due in three days and the charge still shows as “pending review.” Can you help? — Sampath Radhakrishna, Cupertino, Calif.

Answer

Your son’s American Airlines reservation fell under the “24-hour rule,” which says that if you cancel an airline ticket within a day of making the reservation, you’re entitled to a full and prompt refund. (Certain restrictions apply for last-minute tickets.)

How prompt? Well, that’s the problem. When a refund is due, American Airlines must forward a credit to your card company within seven business days after receiving a complete refund application, according to the Department of Transportation. But the credit may take a month or two to appear on your statement.

Your son was at about the one-month mark. He’d been left with the impression that his refund would be issued “soon” and had interpreted that as less than a month. In fact, American Airlines would have been well within its rights to wait two months before returning the money.

Consider the absurdity of this situation

American Airlines is allowed to keep your refund for two months — can you say “interest-free loan?” — while the rest of us must pay our bills promptly. Oh, and how long does it take American to withdraw the money from your son’s account? Seconds.

Something is just not right with this. American Airlines should have refunded the money. In seconds.
This isn’t an American Airlines problem or even an airline problem. Corporate America creates rules that favor it and allow it to benefit from holding on to your money for a few extra weeks. I’ve asked executives about the sluggish refund process, and they’ve told me, with a straight face, that the problem is exacerbated by credit card billing cycles and overly cautious accounting processes. I think that’s nonsense. If they benefited from speedy refunds, they would have figured out a way to send you the money instantly. But they have no motive, so here we are.

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A brief, polite email to one of American Airline’s customer service executives might have shaken a check loose from the accounting department. I list names, numbers and emails on my consumer advocacy site. You can also read the guide on how to get a refund on a nonrefundable ticket. The guide has been drafted by myself and my advocacy team.

I contacted American Airlines on your son’s behalf and it informed me that your refund has been processed — hopefully in time for him to avoid paying a big credit card bill.

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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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