Why won’t American refund my flight?

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After Geoff Shaughnessy’s flight from Chicago to Palm Beach is canceled, he’s rebooked on another carrier. Oh wait – not really. He’s just had to pay another $352 to get home. Can he get a refund?

Question: I’m trying to get a refund from American Airlines and I need your help. I recently flew from Grand Rapids, Mich., to Palm Beach. The first segment of my flight from Grand Rapids to Chicago was late, and I missed my next flight from Chicago to Palm Beach.

An American Airlines representative rebooked me on another flight to Palm Beach operated by Delta Air Lines. At least that’s what he said. But when I finally reached the Delta terminal to obtain boarding passes, the Delta reps there told me no ticket had been issued by American.

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Since time was running out to board the last flight of the day to Palm Beach, and the Delta reps couldn’t get the American reps to answer the phone, I was forced to purchase a one-way Delta ticket for a total of $352.

So far, American has refunded $2.50 and offered me a $100 voucher. It seems straightforward and obvious they owe me another $349.50, and I think they know it too. Can you help me?
Geoff Shaughnessy, Palm Beach, Fla.

Answer: Ah, airline math! No industry calculates prices and refunds quite like commercial aviation, and customers almost always end up on the losing end.

Your case turned out to be a little more complicated than it looked. American reviewed your request and found that you were traveling on a frequent flier award ticket, which technically has no value, so the refund which covered some government fees on the ticket, was correct. (See, I’m not the only one who says award tickets are worthless.)

The point of contention is whether American should have covered the cost of your flight on Delta. American’s records don’t show you were ticketed on the last flight of the day to Palm Beach. Normally, an airline will rebook you on a flight of its choosing, but if you aren’t ticketed on that flight, you’d have to go back to the carrier for a resolution.

Instead, you took matters into your own hands. You took the American rep at his word – that the airline had intended to pay for your ticket to Palm Beach – and assumed it would reimburse you for what appeared to be an airline error.

That turned out to be an incorrect assumption. American’s rules, which are pretty standard across the airline business, say it’s the airline’s decision on how and when to rebook you. You really needed to reach an airline representative through its 800-number to get guidance on what to do next.

Still, when a representative tells you to run to the gate and catch the next flight to Palm Beach, you should be able to consider that some form of guarantee. I can’t fault you for taking matters into your own hands, considering the previous delays.

You’ll be happy to know there are several levels of appeal. First, you can contact one of American’s executives; I list them on my website. You can contact the US Department of Transportation (DOT) to complain about this. Or you can contact me.

You chose doors number two and three. You wrote to the DOT, and also contacted me. I got in touch with American on your behalf. American refunded your $350.

Can you take an airline employee at his or her word?

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69 thoughts on “Why won’t American refund my flight?

    1. You’re totally right. The question should be “Should you take any employee’s word of any business?” And the answer is “Always get everything in writing, always.”

    1. Agreed, but not sure that was practical in this case (“Since time was running out to board the last flight of the day to Palm Beach”).

      Something we always avoid if possible is a connection where we will taking “the last flight of the day”. For the exact situation the OP faced …

    2. As a practical matter, shouldn’t interline agreement transfers like this one have a standard document that can be printed at the gate for the passenger to carry to the designated other airline as proof that a diversionary ticket was issued?

      1. true. if the gate agent was in too much of a “hurry” to give me any kind of print out/proof i would assume Delta was going to make me pay for a whole new ticket.

    3. The one time this happened to me, arrived from Japan to seatac, onward to california, my california flight was insanely delayed. My baby was really sick (she had RSV and got a steroid shot but it was wearing off after the long flight and she was running a fever). My mom called delta to try to get is on another flight and told them about my daughter. They told her there was no other flight, so I was waiting and about ten minutes later I was called up to the gate and handed a boarding pass for united and told to RUN to another concourse (which is great fun in the s terminal in Seattle with a baby) to get on a united flight leaving in 35 minutes. I made it fine and we got to la. I don’t know if delta did it because of the baby (I’m thinking so?) but I was the only one sent to united and I’ve found out from this site how rare a booking that was. Difference is that I got a boarding pass. I would never buy a ticket, even if it were the last flight, unless it were a crazy emergency.

      1. “Difference is that I got a boarding pass. I would never buy a ticket, even if it were the last flight, unless it were a crazy emergency.”

        There’s the rub. Despite your chaotic day, you had still obtained a boarding pass. Not on paper = non-existent.

        1. I agree… That’s why I was pointing out that they will give you some kind of documentation… I can’t believe they didn’t here or that they guy bought a ticket. Now that I think of it, I think it might not have been a boarding pass but a confirmation of the inter airline reservation delta made for me. I think emanon mentioned one below (the confirmation). I’m pretty sure my paper had a seat number on it…and it might have been the boarding pass. It was awhile ago and a stressful day as you said, but either way, the point is that I was given written documentation. And we’d been denied boarding, we’d have been back over at the delta counter figuring out what was going on. And the interesting thing is that I’m pretty sure we were on an award flight, too. My case was very similar to this guy’s case but I really was put on another flight.

  1. Words are cheap these days. If it is not in writing, or in this instance, the ticket not issued, then I can assume that the person giving the information is “misspeaking”. Does not matter if this is an airline employee or a representative in another industry, verbal promises are not worth the energy used to spout them.

  2. I’m a little confused here:

    “American’s records don’t show you were ticketed on the last flight of the day to Palm Beach”

    Does that mean the OP was not booked on the last American flight of the day to Palm Beach? Or does that refer to the Delta flight?

    If he wasn’t on the last American flight, then it makes very little sense that AA would book him on another carrier without first putting him on a later AA flight.

    But whatever. AA was on the hook to get him there somehow. But as you go back through the history of articles, the “self-help” cases — where a customer buys something with his/her own money and then wants a company to reimburse them — never turn out well.

    Don’t do self-help! Don’t buy something without a written guarantee and then expect reimbursement!

  3. If there’s one thing that I have learned from reading Chris’s articles for years… The minute I take out my wallet and expect to be repaid is the minute I have set myself up for failure…
    I’m also shocked that AA chose to reroute him on another airline when flying on a non-rev ticket. I’ve only personally seen that when someone is a grand poobah in the FF program or the misconnect is due to the fault of the airline. (I noticed the OP didn’t mention if the delay was mechanical or weather)

    Beyond that, taking the last flight of the day anywhere is a prescription for failure. Unless I’m headed on vacation, I always leave at least one additional flight to get me where I need to go (or in the case of an international flight one additional flight to make the international connection). It takes extra time but insures that I don’t miss an event due to a misconnection.

    Great job getting him refunded Chris

  4. I think I’m getting jaded. When I saw the title “Why won’t American refund my flight?” my first thought was “Because it wasn’t a refundable ticket?”.

  5. Geoff left out that very important detail that it was a frequent flier ticket. They are treated differently. When an agent is standing behind a desk, are you supposed to believe them? A ticket re-issued from that desk would look like a ticket / boarding pass. Geoff did not get one of these. Trust, airlines, tickets….alll magic words at an airport.

  6. We were booked on a flight from Seattle to Tucson on US Airways. Flight was cancelled due to mechanical problems. Gate agent said she could get us on an Alaskan Air flight and said she booked us accordingly, but we’d have to get boarding passes at Alaskan Air. So we trek across the airport to Alaskan Air and guess what. No boarding passes under our name. Thanks to a courteous, dutiful and caring Alaskan Air gate agent who went over to US Airways and actually did the flight switch (which meant US Air had to buy our tickets), we were able to board. From then on, we said never ever take a gate agent’s word. Get something, anything in writing – and get the gate agent’s name.

  7. This is all nice a good, but some practical advice is needed.

    If you were in the OP’s situation where your flight is canceled and the GA tells you that you have a ticket on another flight, what paperwork do you need to get to confirm that the GA is not telling tall tales to get rid of you?

    1. In my case they almost always give me a flight voucher, referencing the ticket number with the other airline, and I have to take it to the other airline to get my boarding pass. The only time it ever failed me was with AA. I got to AA and they refused to give me a boarding pass because they has “elites” who were trying to go standby, and despite having a confirmed reservation, the agent flat our refused to allow me on the flight. I should have filed a complaint with IDB with DOT.

      Ive had it a few other times on AA where even with the voucher, they say they can’t find proof that it’s paid for, and won’t give me a boarding pass. Ive had it work with the many other airlines I have been re-routed on.

    2. Re: Practical Advice
      Oh did you mean to ask why is this not covered in the World’s Smartest Traveler Manual? 🙂
      @jeanne – do you have any idea what Elliott said in his book?

      1. Not anything specific. Chapter 10, p. 135 sub-topic “Delays and Cancellations”: If it’s the airline’s fault that your flight is delayed or canceled – if, say, a plane can’t take off because of a broken engine – you have more rights than if it’s an event the airline’s control, often called a force majeure event. Even if the delay is the airline’s fault, your rights rarely extend beyond a meal, a hotel room, and a ticket on the next flight out – if there’s room”.

        Interestingly enough, p. 136 has a section called “Whom should I contact when I have a problem?” which continues to p. 138. The most prominent thing in the section is contacting the DOT. Which is what the OP did.

    3. Usually in my experience they print out and hand you the new boarding pass(es). I had FF award seats on United last year, and both going and returning, the United flights got screwed up and they rebooked me on US Air. The United agent gave me the US Air boarding passes, and I was all set to go.

  8. In my many years of travel, I have only been reaccommodated on another airline a few times. Each and every time I was given a paper ticket by the airline to turn in at the other airline’s ticket counter for a boarding pass. Yes, the airline putting you on another airline’s flight cannot give you a boarding pass for that flight, but they sure can give you a document with a confirmation number on it to use to get a boarding pass. Maybe in this era of electronic ticketing most people don’t think about having an actual ticket, but you need something to prove what you were told.

    The last time I got put on a different airline’s flight was about 6 months ago where UA put me on a Frontier flight because the UA pilot “expired” and they had no replacement at the small airport. UA was handing out ticket vouchers for the Frontier flight like they were peanuts on a Southwest flight. I began thinking about it and realized that here was no way that the Frontier Airbus 318 was going to hold everyone already booked plus all of the UA Airbus 320 passengers. So I went out to the Frontier ticketing counter and exchanged my voucher/ticket for a boarding pass. I got on the plane. But there were a whole lot of people waiting at the Frontier gate that were waving their UA issued ticket at the gate agent demanding a boarding pass because they had the piece of paper from UA.

    And Award Tickets are not worthless. They may have no residual cash value, but they sure are worth getting a flight without paying extra for it! In this case, the ticket was worth no less than any other non-refundable ticket issued by the airline. And I don’t see where the OP is complaining that the miles were not credited back to him (unless that is the next article).

    1. If I remember correctly, in the good old days, an airline can lift another airline’s ENDORSABLE ticket coupons and present them for payment.

      1. That was the good old days of paper tickets where all you had to do was hand it to a ticketing agent for a different airline and, if they felt like it, they would put you on their next available flight. From what I have been told, electronic tickets are not ENDORSABLE because there is no equivalent of a paper ticket to present back to the original airline as a tenderable document for payment.

        1. Usually the rules of the fare state it in the PNR and it is usually nonrefundable fares. When we do a ticket exchange for a nonrefundable fare, we must put the nonendorsable in the ticketing field or we get fined.

          1. But I should state, all this is up to the gate agents as to what they allow any fare to do. I was on a nonrev ticket, which allows for basically no compensation and I was put up in a hotel, given meal vouchers and got $200 back from the carrier. Go figure!

    2. That has happened to me many times in MSN, though its usually a UA ERJ45 or CRJ200 flight that gets canceled and we can all fit on the F9 A318.

  9. I voted no, get it in writing. Though in this case I think the OP deserved to get $349.50 back from AA. If they re-booked the OP because of the missed connection, then I think they should pay for it. As someone who travels a lot, misses a lot of connections, and gets re-booked occasionally I have seen this hic-up happen pretty frequently. And almost always with AA. When the airline re-books, they usually give me paperwork to bring to the other airline. If this is what happened, then the OP deserves to get reimbursed.

    1. I too have gotten paperwork to take to the airline on which I have been rebooked. And if they do not offer it, I ask for it.

  10. An American Airlines representative rebooked me on another flight to Palm Beach operated by Delta Air Lines.

    Considering that you are holding an AWARD ticket, the meaning of “rebook” here is a courtesy RESERVATION was made for you on Delta, but no tickets were issued. You will need to pay for the tickets yourself in the Delta counter.

    1. Am I understanding correctly? An airline might buy a ticket for you on another carrier if you paid for your flight using cash, but not miles?

      1. It depends.
        If your (paid) ticket is ENDORSABLE or if the airline chooses to have your ticket endorsed to another airline, there is no problem.
        But during some situations, an airline ground staff can resort to giving out vouchers which other airlines will honor for the problem flight (space permitted)

        I don’t believe AWARD tickets are endorsable.
        Which makes me believe that he requested to be booked on another airline’s flight so he could get home; but he missed or did not want to understand the part that he had to pay for that flight.

        ADDED: I have had several passengers (on paid tickets) to Asia via Detroit, where Delta has chosen to book to LAX or a West Coast gateway on another airline because they missed their DTW-NRT/NGO connecting flight. If I recall correctly, the PNR reflected all the changes Delta did.

        1. This is where one of our participating gate agents input would be of value. My understanding is that an award ticket is not endorseable. My experience, more than once, with cancelled flights is that the gate agents are rushed, over stressed and not all information is given to the passenger(s), plus stuff happens to the PNR that the passenger isn’t aware of. I was flying on AA from STS to SFO to go to DFW for Sabre training. My STS flight was cancelled due to fog and AA put all of us on the local airport bus, at their expense and sent us down to SFO, rebooking us on the next flight out to our various destinations. The problem I encountered is that the agent in STS canceled everything in the PNR to rebook and when I got to DFW and took the shuttle to AA Headquarters, they were surprised to see me, but fortunately still had space to accommodate me and rebooked my flight home.

      2. CCF certainly would know better than me, but it’s my understanding that, as Elliott often points out, award miles and tickets are simply pixie fairy dust that airlines use to lure people into getting credit cards or buying stuff, but have zero cash value because the airline’s FF policy states something like: “Customer has zero rights. They don’t like it? Don’t join our program!” In other words, an F-U contract but maybe there’s a proper legal term for that.

        With paid tickets, subject to all kinds of commie federal regulation and normal contract law, the airline MUST get that person to their destination, period. Award tickets are basically: “If the airline is in a good mood that day, they’ll fly you.”

        Of course, for the most part, airlines don’t want to p off their FF customers. Even though there’s much less legal requirement for them to honor award tickets, it’s bad business for them to annoy too many of them and result in their billion dollar credit card and club systems collapsing if people lose all confidence in the system. (The same thinking goes into our USA monetary system.) That’s why the airline rewarded the guy’s money. It was a “gesture of goodwill.”

        At least that’s my understanding.

    2. @TonyA_says:disqus I’m going to disagree with you. In late Dec, I took my family to Miami on reward tickets. Our first flight was delayed / cancelled due to mechanical and UA walked us to AA. At the time, the agent used the exact same terminology. The big difference was that AA and UA both use the same contractor at my home airport and their agents are next to each other. She literally walked us next door.

      1. What are you disagreeing with?
        You just said it yourself – the lifting airline (maybe a regional) was being codeshared by BOTH United and American.
        So all they need to do is present the coupon for payment.
        The point is they will GET PAID.

        ADDED: In the case of the OP, Delta will not take his AWARD AA coupon. Delta will not get paid by AA.

        1. Tony you misread what I wrote… It wasn’t the same lifting airline. It was the same ground handling company. Because it was a mechanical delay, they walked me just like a full rev ticket

          1. I’m going to assume there is an agreement between UA and AA to do this during irregular operations. Otherwise someone is gonna get fired. Note your ticket was accepted. That’s the sign you want to look for.

            ADDED: This is all about airlines getting paid by other airlines.

          2. John, what exactly happened? Did AA simply take the UA ticket coupon and you were issued a new boarding pass?

          3. @TonyA_says:disqus All e-tickets and since both ladies worked for the same contractor… I just walked down the row, AA took my bags and issued me a boarding pass. I honestly never touched a piece of paper.

          4. Then I think a FIM (Flight Interruption Manifest) or EWA (Endorsement Waiver) was issued. Totally different scenario compared to OP (IMO).

          5. That would be my guess here – I used to work for United, and American was always their go-to for this, and vice versa.

          6. Can you fill us in on how, when you worked at the airport, frequent flyer tickets were handed, both full award tickets and upgrades. Were they endorsable?

      2. Similar experience. I was on a DL award ticket from EWR-MSP-DEN trying to burn old delta miles. DL canceled the flight due to crew and re-booked me on UA (In the old CO terminal). I ran to the train, got to UA, waited in line, gave them my voucher, and they handed be a boarding pass. No issues across alliances.

  11. I had to fly to Germany on business in March. I was booked from BWI to Newark to Munich. I checked in the night before, everything was fine, no issues, no e-mails, texts, messages, I left the house. I showed up 3 hours early, could not print boarding passes, the flight from BWI to Newark had been cancelled because of light rain at BWI. Great! Meanwhile my corporate TA rebooked me without telling me on a hideous itinerary that had me going out of BWI to Houston, to Dulles to Munich the following day. A snow storm was coming that following day, besides BWI and Dulles are only about an hour away by car (if no traffic). No good. The TA was unreachable (and got a good earful afterwards). The nice lady at United attempted to fix the mess, there was a flight from Dulles leaving later that night, but since the flight from Newark to Munich was not cancelled and I already checked in she could not take me off the Munich flight. The reservation agent at Lufthansa could not un-check me in either. So United made the reservation for Dulles flight, gave me a printout to take to Lufthansa in Dulles, because apparently only a Lufthansa agent at desk in Dulles could actually issue me a ticket. Well, I crossed my fingers and took the piece of paper to Dulles. Lufthansa was able to fix the mess, I made my flight, got to my conference, all good. I strongly doubt however if I just took a United agent’s word at face value and just showed up in Dulles everything would’ve been fixed up nicely. My six-months-old daughter thoroughly enjoyed watching me run around and then snored through the transatlantic. I did not manage to reach the company TA until three days later via e-mail. They had to fix my return flight. At least they did *that* much. Get everything in writing. Always.

  12. Here’s my recommendation (in hopefully understandable English).

    Whenever your flight(s) is disrupted you must understand how your airline will reaccommodate you. What (new) flights will you have tickets for.
    Notice I said TICKETS and not just reserved space.

    This usually comes in 3 or 4 flavors:

    (a) your airline can completely re-ticket you on all of their flights completely.
    If so, then simply ask for a new copy of your ETR (E-ticket receipt). This is easy since you might even be given boarding passes for those new flights.

    (b) your airline can re-issue you tickets on other airlines (abbrev OAL or OA).
    If so, again, simply ask for a new copy of your ETR (E-ticket receipt).
    Note: in both cases (a) and (b), tickets have been re-issued. You can check them yourself.
    If the agent does not want to print anything for you – demand the other airline’s (OAL) confirmation number (aka Record Locator or RLOC) and the e-ticket number(s) issued for those flights. Right them down and then go to the OAL desk to confirm it.

    (c) your airline has decided to issue a Flight Interruption Manifest (FIM) and is putting you on a different airline. You MUST be given a FIMs ticket voucher (paper) for that other airline (unless the both airlines have the capability to do this electronically). That voucher is the other airline’s means of collecting money. They won’t fly you for free.
    The key is that you must have something in your hand. ASK your airline if your are being FIMed.

    (d) your are lucky enough to be holding PAPER tickets in the first place and the other airline is willing to fly you using your airlines ticket coupon (rare).

    Good luck, You will need it.

    1. Okay, printing this out and putting it with my “Travel Stuff” folder.

      I honestly think this belongs in a Wiki attached to this site or as an electronic addendum to the book “How to be . . .”

      Thanks, Tony!

    2. Oh, forgot to ask – what if an award ticket was originally used to book the flight? Will the above advice still work? (Not that *I* will ever fly on an award ticket, but hey, let’s get that information out there!)

      1. For awards, a guarded YES answer (since Awards Flights are mostly on the airline’s own metal and it’s alliance ONLY).
        The airline itself should always honor their own award tickets on their own flights.
        The ALLIANCE (in theory) should also help each other. So rebooking you on an Alliance Flight should be easy for your airline.
        FIMs is another story. Your original ticket is quite meaningless.
        With FIMs, your airline is rebooking you on ANOTHER airline (it has some sort of settlement agreement with) at a previously agreed upon price (bilateral agreement). Since it cannot issue an ordinary eticket on that OAL, they give you a FIMs voucher (a kind of travel document) which you present to the other airline. That OAL uses that to issue you a boarding pass(es) and then they present the same to the clearing house so they can get paid.
        FIMs is the best friend of an award ticket holder since the original fare or ticket type is irrelevant.

        1. Forgive my very limited knowledge, but I thought that American and Delta weren’t part of the same alliance.

          So in this particular case, the OP’s only hope was an FIM, correct? Is an FIM likely in this particular situation – ticket booked using miles, passenger can’t use the ticket (airline’s fault) and the two airlines aren’t part of the same alliance? Not sure why an airline would want to issue an FIM; seems pretty costly, as opposed to issuing hotel and meal vouchers.

          I dunno – I don’t fly enough to know. 🙂

          1. It is confusing to me, too. The OP was charged, but then AA refunded the fee when Chris got involved.

          2. That’s the whole idea. Airline’s are very reluctant just to issue a FIM.
            Usually this is a last resort.
            For that reason, airlines usually make a deal with OALs for IROPs.
            This is an “I scratch your back, you scratch mine BILATERAL deal”.

            Since the OP was not holding a FIMs document, I doubt he was FIMed. Otherwise DL would have boarded him and charged AA a ton of money.

          3. Ok IMO to the typical layman when AA tells you to go to DL counter such and such and get your boarding pass for flight xxx, then you should assume it won’t cost you an extra dime.

            Whether they got your tickets reissued or the other airline accepting your airline’s ticket coupons or your airline issued a FIM should be transparent to you.

            Something is so wrong with the system if the passenger needs a phd in INVOL REROUTE handling and ticketing to be the World’s Smartest Traveler.

            So for the OP, if AA really made the DL booking for him, then AA should have made sure it was ticketed IMO.

        2. Again, a gate agent’s input would be handy right now. My award ticket was only good on another flight that had award space, according to UA, when my flight was cancelled due to damage to the plane upon arrival. I was told I could fly out on another flight 48 hours later. And this was said by a gate agent only handling first and business class passengers, everyone else had to go to customer service.

          1. UA didn’t want to spend the equivalent of a full price fare to put you (or anyone else for that matter) on another airline’s flight in exchange for just the miles redeemed and hoped you would be fine with the 2 day delay. They also didn’t want to put you on another of their flights because if you didn’t fly all they owed you was the miles where anyone who paid for a ticket and didn’t get on a flight would be owed real money. It’s all about the potential profit.

            Last time something like this happened to me, I went to the United Club and talked with the Global Services agent there (even though I am not at that level in the UA FF program). He was able to put me on the next flight out that day even though there was no availability showing. I got my Business First seat and got to my destination in Europe only 4 hours late. Many others were still arguing with the gate agent about getting rebooked as I walked past that gate on the way to my replacement flight. Maybe I was just lucky.

          2. I actually did quite nicely. I was very nice at the counter and had waited for 3 other business class passengers to get reaccommodated when it was my turn. Right after he told me it would be 48 hours, if I wanted to keep the upgrade, as he could accommodate us in economy, he got a call and UA brought in an international configured 777 for us, as our damaged plane was a 747, He put my 80 year old mother and me in first class. Only problem after that was our flight out of ORD was delayed so we spent about 20 hours in the airports and flying just to get to ALB…ugh!

  13. My daughter is waiting for a refund from American as I write this. Her flight was cancelled entirely and no one, absolutely no one, was helpful at all. The gate agent handed everyone an envelope as they got off the plane and told to file for a refund and then left the gate area. Sarah filed te paperwork online as the info in the envelope instructed and the response came back that she was not due a refund because it was a non-refundable flight. She called and was told that her refund was in process and it would be the end of June before she’d see the refund. Chris, expect a request to mediate very soon!

  14. American had a later flight from Chicago to Palm Beach.
    Why on earth would any airline want to pay another airline for a flight when they had one going ?
    I’d suggest, you abused the gate agent & to get rid of you, they said go to Delta. At ORD that’s probably miles away.
    Always two sides to a story & I think you’re either telling a”porky pie” or not the whole truth.

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