Billed by American Airlines — and then billed again

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By Christopher Elliott

Russell Higley is promised a refund after his flight is canceled. But now his airline is trying to bill him twice for a flight he never took. What’s the problem?

Question

I read your columns and appreciate what you have done. For someone like me, who is nearly 67 years old, with a pacemaker, heart and liver disease, and arthritis, this $371 loss is a nightmare.

American Airlines canceled my flight from New York to Palm Springs, Calif., and agreed to refund my fare.

When the amount did not appear on my account, I disputed the charge on my American Airlines-branded credit card. My credit card offered a provisional credit, and the next day American issued a second $371 credit.

All was well until a few months later, when my bank billed me again for another $371.

Despite a dozen phone calls to American Airlines customer service, emails, and three written disputes faxed to the airline, the charge stuck. My card also charged $6 in interest against this unpaid balance.

When I call American customer service, they refer me back to American Airlines’ credit card; when I call American Airlines’ credit card, they refer me back to American customer service. No one takes responsibility to review what is an obvious error. I am getting nowhere! — Russell Higley, Elmsford, New York

Answer

American should have promptly refunded your ticket, not billed you again. And the refund should have stuck. In fact, according to American’s conditions of carriage — the legal agreement between you and the airline — refunds will be provided within seven business days of receipt of the required refund information.

This isn’t the first American Airlines refund problem we’ve had, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. And the double-billing issue isn’t new, either. Here’s a recent problem with Booking.com and a hotel.

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So what went wrong?

When the refund didn’t appear as promised, you contacted your credit card to place the amount in dispute. You have a co-branded American Airlines card. Your bank issues the card, so the airline has no control over what happens to your dispute. The bank sided with you.

American’s billing system appears to have crossed its own wires between your initial charge, which was initially a valid one, and your subsequent refund request. It looks as if it incorrectly tagged your dispute as being in error, probably because it was already in the process of refunding your ticket.

This case underscores the importance of being patient when you’re waiting for a refund from an airline, or any travel company. Of course, there’s no excuse for American dragging its feet on a refund, but by jumping ahead of it and disputing the charge, you ended up confusing it.

How long should you wait for a refund? Anywhere from four to six weeks. After that, you need to be bothering the company for the money. (I list the names and numbers of their managers on my website.) Use a credit card dispute only as a last resort.

You reached out to my advocacy team for help. I contacted American on your behalf, and it apologized, refunded your $371 and offered you a $125 voucher for a future flight.

Do airline refunds take too long?

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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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