American flexes its muscle until passengers push back

Herb Sadler found that American Airlines arbitrarily changed his flight schedule, moving his return flight to the day before he had planned to come home. Can it do that? And is it right?

Question: My wife and I made reservations on American Airlines to fly from Vancouver, British Columbia to Pensacola, Fla. by way of Dallas-Fort Worth. We booked our departure for June 18, and received confirmation from American that we were scheduled to fly on that day. But they rescheduled our flight to a “red-eye” departing on June 17 without notifying us. I found out that the flight had been changed when I checked American’s website. I also found that flights on June 18 were still available.

I called American Airlines to request that we be rebooked on a daytime flight on the “confirmed” departure date, June 18. American refused, insisting we stay on the “red-eye” departure they had rebooked us on without our knowledge. Had we accepted their offer, we would have been forced to leave a day earlier for our vacation than we had planned and paid for.

We had to purchase tickets on another airline in order to fly on the days we had originally booked and confirmed with American Airlines. We believe American felt it could change the dates of our flights because we had purchased inexpensive tickets.

We requested refunds from American for our tickets, and so far my wife’s fare has been refunded, but mine has not. We want my fare to be refunded as well.

Can American Airlines just change our flight dates and times without our consent, or even warning us in advance? — Herb Sadler, Gulf Breeze, Fla.

Answer: Unfortunately, yes. American Airlines’ Conditions of Carriage, the legal agreement between the passenger and the airline, expressly indicates that “times shown in timetables or elsewhere are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract.”

The fine print also says:

Schedules are subject to change without notice. American is not responsible for 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. Under no circumstances shall American be liable for any special, incidental or consequential damages arising from the foregoing.

It’s a standard adhesion provision, completely one-sided in American’s favor. And I agree that your low fares probably did make you and your wife susceptible to a unilateral itinerary change by American, as opposed to a passenger with elite status on a more expensive ticket.

Of course it isn’t fair.

It’s also poor customer service, which is unfortunately something for which American Airlines in particular is known. But a full refund of your fares in response to a unilateral itinerary change that doesn’t work for you is good customer service. And your case, in which an airline thinks it can get away with treating you poorly because you’re not an elite customer, is an appropriate time to put your foot down and refuse to put up with poor-quality treatment.

Our advocates reached out to American Airlines on your behalf, and they issued you and your wife a full refund for your fares. We suspect that their willingness to do so is out of the ordinary, because your fares were “non-refundable.”

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