Am I not entitled to a ticket credit, Virgin Atlantic?

Janice Dittman expected a full refund when she canceled her Virgin Atlantic flight from San Francisco to London. Instead, the carrier credited her for the taxes and offered no apologies for pocketing the rest of her money. Read more “Am I not entitled to a ticket credit, Virgin Atlantic?”

Tariff trouble: Is my airline itinerary illegal?

It’s no secret that fare rules — the all-uppercase gibberish you often see on the bottom of your computer screen when buying your ticket — are designed to make your airline a few extra bucks. Some of so-called tariff rules require a Saturday night stay. Others insist you use both halves of the ticket.

Like most travelers, Robert (no last name, and I’ll explain in a second) try to travel within the rules. But then life happens.

Here’s the note I got from Robert about his tariff rule trouble. Maybe you can help him do the right thing.

I have an airline puzzle.

I booked three non-refundable round-trip tickets for me and my family from the Washington area to Salt Lake City recently. We were planning to stay in Utah for a week and a half and return on June 22.

A month after I booked the tickets, my sister announced she was going to get married on June 25, so I called American Airlines to see if I could change my return tickets.

They said it would be $150 per ticket, plus up to $80 extra for each ticket for the fare difference. But looking at one-way trips from Salt Lake City to Washington, I discovered tickets that would only cost $80, a third of what it would cost to change the date on the return ticket.

It would make a lot more sense for me to just miss my return flight home on the 22nd and catch the one-way ticket home on Saturday.

Unfortunately, I made the mistake of calling the airline back to try and negotiate with them again, and I asked them why it was reasonable for them to charge me $230 in change fees when I could just buy an additional one-way ticket for $80.

The customer service rep was upset and said “You can’t do that! And the fact that you’re telling me this makes it three times worse, because now the airline will be checking.”

I responded that I wasn’t necessarily going to do that, and that I didn’t have to extend my ticket; only that I wanted to do it if it wouldn’t be too expensive. I further said that if I couldn’t buy a one-way ticket home on American Airlines, I could do it on another airline.

She basically hung up on me after that.

I immediately booked the $80 one-way tickets through Expedia. But now I’m worried that something bad will happen. Will they force me to pay outrageous fees when I try to board the one-way flight home on June 25 after I missed the original flight home?

This is a terrific question. So I put it to American Airlines. Here’s the response from spokeswoman Andrea Huguely.

We don’t know exactly what the agent said or in what tone, but we will definitely pass these concerns on to the Reservations Staff supervisors so they can follow up as necessary.

Regardless of what is said, it always needs to be conveyed in a professional manner. If that, indeed, was not the case, we would certainly apologize. We suspect she may have been trying to explain that any employee, RES agent or anywhere else, who finds out about anyone violating our ticket rules or tariffs must report it from an ethical standpoint. We are not saying the customer KNEW he was doing that, and if not, that probably should have been explained to him as well.

We cannot say for sure what becomes of every situation reported by an employee.

It may, or may not be followed up. There are many factors in that — the nature of the fare rules violation and how significant it is, whether it appears to be a continued pattern of abuse or gaming, the sheer volume of things to check out at any one particular time, or whether other potential factors come into play….not all of which can be discussed for fear of providing a “how-to” lesson. Ultimately, [the passenger] will need to decide how he is going to travel.

From all appearances, our policies were correctly followed in terms of the change fees and new fare. The customer had originally purchased a low-fare, non-refundable ticket in which change fees apply (as you know, not all types of tickets are subject to a change fee). Since the customer asked to change the date of travel the change fee applied.

Also required in such changes is that the new fare offered be in the same fare category as the original ticket. That is why the fare offered was also in addition to the change fee.

As you’ll see below, even though you’ve probably looked at them from time to time, our Conditions of Carriage spell out the rules about changing itineraries, as well as a separate section about certain practices that violate our tariffs and/or fare rules.

Unfortunately, and the passenger may not be aware, but by not using the second leg of his round-trip ticket AND by also purchasing an additional one-way ticket for the same itinerary, he is violating the tariffs by engaging in a practice called “throwaway ticketing.” American specifically prohibits this practice.

Buying a ticket is a contract, one that the carrier must uphold AND the customer as well. But, it’s important that the customer read the fare rules in the information provided in the Conditions of Carriage. Such information is available by clicking on each fare on AA.com to see its rules. I would encourage a customer to do that for such information, and also, should they have additional questions, to call our Reservations number.

We are not saying, as I noted above, that this will definitely happen, but we may under those fare rules.

Here’s what might happen if Robert is caught. American could,

Cancel any remaining portion of the passenger’s itinerary, confiscate unused flight coupons, refuse to board the passenger or check the passenger’s luggage, or assess the passenger for the reasonable remaining value of the ticket, which shall be no less than the difference between the fare actually paid and the lowest fare applicable to the passenger’s actual itinerary.

It should be obvious why Robert doesn’t want his last name used in this story. What’s less obvious is what he should do now.

No one wants to run afoul of an airline’s rules, even if the rules don’t make any sense. And let’s be clear: From a passenger’s perspective, these rules don’t make any sense.

So should Robert stay or go?

I had a follow-up conversation with him after checking with American, and he can’t bring himself to paying the change fee. He’s sticking to his original itinerary — throwing the return ticket away and flying on the one-way return.

I think American will look the other way. The airline typically goes after fare rule violators who are elite-level frequent fliers with a track record of being repeat offenders or travel agents who enable this kind of behavior. Not people like Robert who are going to their sister’s wedding.

What do you think? Should Robert pay American the extra money? Should he take the one-way flight? Do these tariff rules make sense to you?