This is a really expensive American Airlines award ticket error

This is a very expensive award ticket error.

Andrea Hotaling blames an AAdvantage award ticket error for preventing her from flying to Italy as she’d planned. And now she wants a refund for a nonrefundable American Airlines ticket.

Her case is a reminder that no airline loyalty programs, including the AAdvantage program, guarantee that award tickets will be available. Nor does the sudden availability of award tickets justify refunding a nonrefundable airfare.

Award ticket error or no award tickets available?

Hotaling, an AAdvantage Gold member, recently booked round-trip tickets from Philadelphia to Italy. She called AAdvantage to make the reservations and hoped to use miles. But the agent to whom she spoke told her that no seats were available for purchase via AAdvantage miles. She then paid cash to purchase the tickets.

“The American Airlines agent made the award ticket error and forced me to purchase the ticket,” says Hotaling.

Three days later, a relative of Hotaling booked a flight using AAdvantage miles. Hotaling immediately contacted AAdvantage to ask why no award tickets had been available three days earlier. This agent found one available award ticket. Hotaling then asked the agent to cancel one of the nonrefundable tickets she had purchased.

Award ticket error or not, nonrefundable tickets are still nonrefundable

Hotaling then emailed American Airlines and asked for a refund of $1,140 for the canceled airfare. But American Airlines refused to refund the nonrefundable ticket.

American Airlines’ contract of carriage is clear that it won’t issue refunds for nonrefundable tickets except in specific circumstances. Those circumstances don’t include a sudden award ticket availability for your destination.

American Airlines will allow passengers to retain credit and travel within one year of the original booking. But they will have to pay any change fees and price differences in the cost of their airfares. However, Hotaling canceled her ticket completely so no credit is available.

“But nobody told me!”

Our executive director, Michelle Couch-Friedman, explained to Hotaling that this was not an award ticket error. The availability of award tickets can change daily. And it’s important to note that Hotaling had asked for two award tickets. Two award tickets to a popular destination such as Italy are quite difficult to obtain. And typically the award seats are scooped up almost a year in advance.  The error was canceling the nonrefundable ticket in favor of the award ticket that the agent found later.

That wasn’t what Hotaling wanted to hear. She responded:

At no time, either in verbal or written communication, did any AA personnel mention fluctuations in award ticket availability. During my original call to AAdvantage Gold Service, the agent told me no mileage awards were available from mid-September to the first week of November.

The AAdvantage Gold Service agent’s poor/mistaken/dubious service caused the problem. AA should take responsibility for this error.

Hotaling also complained that the AAdvantage agent’s notes were inaccurate and that American Airlines would not provide a recording of the call.

Not a case for Elliott Advocacy

Oddly for an AAdvantage Gold member, Hotaling didn’t seem to understand how airline award programs work. As Michelle told her, “Every reward program has restrictions, and a passenger’s preferred dates for travel are frequently not available for an award ticket. There are limited seats allotted to each flight for award travel.”

Also, the U.S. Department of Transportation doesn’t regulate award programs. In fact, there is no enforcement agency governing loyalty programs. Lastly, the DOT does not require airlines to release recordings or transcripts of phone calls to passengers.

So, unfortunately, as Michelle explained to Hotaling, she doesn’t have a case that the Elliott Advocacy team can fix. Hotaling could write to American Airlines executives using our executive contacts to escalate her case. Maybe the airline will offer Hotaling a goodwill gesture, but I don’t think she can expect a refund.

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