Does American owe this traveler for his missed day in Mexico?

All passengers were aboard William Kaighn’s American Airlines flight to Phoenix. The doors were secured, and they were waiting to push back from the jetway when the captain announced that everyone would have to deplane and board a different aircraft at another gate.

And then, Kaighn tells our advocates, an entirely different group of passengers boarded that plane, and after fuel was added, took off for the East Coast.

His story raises the following questions: When an airline decides to deplane an entire cabin full of passengers and send that plane to another destination, what obligation does it have to those passengers whose travel plans have been disrupted? If there’s no legal obligation, then what about an ethical one?

“I received 14 text messages from American telling me that the departure time has changed and announcing a new departure time 15 minutes later,” Kaighn reports. The plane to which he’d been reassigned was delayed so that fuel could be drained to allow for a safe landing in Phoenix.

Three hours later, he finally boarded, and had just settled in to his seat when he received a text informing him that he would miss the connection in Phoenix that was supposed to be taking him and his wife on vacation to Mazatlán, Mexico.

This was particularly frustrating because he’d observed American Airlines agents rebooking numerous other passengers during the three hours they’d been waiting to board, but he’d been assured that he would not miss his connection. He asked to get off the aircraft at that point and was told he couldn’t. He’d have to wait until he got to Phoenix to make other arrangements.

Once there, agents told him that the next available flight to Mazatlán was several days later. Which would have meant that the couple would miss most of their week-long vacation.

He finally persuaded the agent to reroute them through LAX. That required an overnight in Los Angeles, but got them to their vacation destination the next day.

The couple’s night in Los Angeles proved to be a stressful one. He reports issues with charges from the hotel in Los Angeles, for which he was issued a voucher; feels that the amount of the food voucher he was issued was inadequate; had problems navigating LAX with arthritic knees; and said that the plane the couple ultimately boarded hadn’t been adequately cleaned.

All that, plus the fact that they lost more than $300 for the nonrefundable cost of their first night at their vacation resort, is enough to make anyone hopping mad. And Kaighn wants the airline to make it right by giving them a free flight to Mazatlán for next year’s vacation.

The problem is, as our advocates pointed out to him, American Airlines has no legal obligation to do anything more than what it’s already done.

There is no federal law or policy in the U.S. that requires airlines to provide compensation for flight delays or cancellations. Most airlines, including American Airlines, specifically state in their conditions of carriage that they are not responsible or liable for failure to make connections, or to operate any flight according to schedule, or for a change to the schedule of any flight.

The airline might not have any legal responsibility, but given the circumstances here, does it have an ethical obligation to do more? The airline initially offered the couple 3,000 frequent flier miles each, which Kaighn rejected. He pointed out to the airline in his correspondence that as an executive before retirement, he’d logged half a million miles with American. The airline countered with vouchers worth $200 toward future flights for each of them.

Is that enough?

Should the airline grant the couple’s request and give them free flights to Mazatlán for next year’s vacation?

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