Help! American Airlines canceled my flight but won’t cover my expenses

Dale Reed’s American Airlines flight is canceled because of weather, but then reinstated. Should the company cover his hotel costs — or is that a lost cause?

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Question: I was scheduled to fly from Washington to Chicago on American Airlines recently. The night before my Friday flight, I went online to check in and noticed that my flight had been canceled.  During the next five hours I tried repeatedly to get hold of customer service, and was finally told that the flight had been canceled because of bad weather, and so I would need to pay for the extra night’s stay at a hotel and any other expenses.

American rebooked me on a Saturday flight one day later. Imagine my surprise Friday afternoon when I started receiving notices from Google calendar that the original flight was delayed (since it was still on my calendar). I called American and was told that the flight had been reinstated.

At this point it was too late for me to make it to the airport to try and make that flight. I wrote to customer service and requested that American give me a $500 travel voucher to cover my time and additional expenses, including my $193 hotel bill for the extra night. American said it would provide no compensation. Can you help? — Dale Reed, Chicago

Answer: This is a curious case. If American Airlines canceled your flight because of the weather, then it owes you nothing. It is, in legal-speak, an “act of God” outside the company’s control. If, however, the flight was canceled for operational reasons — what’s referred to as a “mechanical” delay — then it does, indeed provide for an overnight hotel stay and meal vouchers.

Details can be found at American’s contract of carriage.

Technically, American is both right and wrong at the same time. Right, in the sense that it owes you nothing for a weather-related cancellation. But wrong, in the sense that it has completely let itself off the hook.

I wouldn’t necessarily blame American for failing to rebook you. Airline reservation systems can automatically rebook you on a reinstated flight, but you’d already made plans to fly the next day, so it wouldn’t have recognized your reservation as one that needed to be rebooked.

“In the unlikely chance we do reinstate a flight, we do try to contact the traveler to let them know about the change,” an airline spokesman told me. “Most times, travelers are already booked on other flights with different connections, if they are connecting.”

Question is, should this extra overnight stay be treated like a weather delay or a mechanical delay? American wants to treat it like a weather delay. My inner consumer advocate says: mechanical delay.

This is definitely the kind of question you should bring up with American in writing, and if it can’t help, appeal to a customer service executive. I list the names, numbers and email addresses of American’s executives on my advocacy site.

I contacted American on your behalf. The airline agreed to reimburse you for your hotel and offered a $200 voucher “due to the circumstances.”

8 thoughts on “Help! American Airlines canceled my flight but won’t cover my expenses

  1. I’m not following; the statement from the airline (which there’s no particular reason do doubt) is that the flight was canceled due to a weather delay, so why would the re-instatement of the flight magically convert it to something like a mechanical?

    That said, AA should have made more of an effort to contact him to let him know about the change.

    P.S. Legal-speak for something outside of a contracted party’s control is “force majeure” (Acts of God are a subset of force majeure events and are quite rare… they refer to truly extraordinary things like a hurricane flooding an airport and somehow destroying a bunch of planes.) There are lots of force majeure events that happen all the time (ATC and unsafe weather would be the two most common. While the FAA wields a mighty hammer of authority over the skies, I don’t think anybody would confuse them with a deity. :-) )

  2. I wound’t automatically assume that it was a mechanical delay, but the situation stinks for the consumer. So, an airline can be let off the hook by canceling a flight and then reinstating it for any reason and get away with it?

  3. I don’t understand how mechanical problems enter into this issue, assuming the original delay really was due to weather. Weather gets bad. Weather gets good. It’s all in the timing and we have no control over that.

  4. last flight of the day – happens ALL the time — airports have time restraints which mean they cannot always fly in if too late

  5. If AA was able to actually operate the flight, then that plainly contradicts the claim that it was necessary to cancel that flight for weather reasons…

    The FAA could have had ATC delays and even ground stops, but those are constantly updated hour by hour and minute-by-minute according to conditions at the moment. The flight was cancelled the night before, which suggests AA made some projections/assumptions which didn’t come to fruition.

  6. If a flight is going to be cancelled, most people prefer sooner rather than later so they can make alternate arrangements. If they waited until they were absolutely sure before cancelling, I’m pretty sure that would cause a lot more problems than reinstating the flight.

    There’s nothing unusual about a dispatcher looking at a list of flights and planes during a severe weather event and making an educated guess that they’ll have difficulty getting plane X to airport Y in time to operate a given flight the next day. It seems silly to be angry at the airline for scrounging up an aircraft after all.

  7. I agree that canceling is sometimes better than a long drawn out delay, assuming customers are notified and re-accommodated swiftly.

    In this case, the educated guess was wrong and the passenger had to spend an extra hotel night for no good reason. AA didn’t notify him when his original flight was re-instated. I think he had a good case for getting that hotel night reimbursed.

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