My most recent disappointment involves a honeymoon couple whose flights to Saint Lucia I booked on American Airlines. The airline tickets were purchased at the end of April, and at the end of May we were notified that a schedule change would force my clients to stay overnight in Miami on their return trip.
Both my office and my clients have contacted American several times by telephone and by email. Our e-mails to American’s customer service office remain unanswered. When we spoke to American agents by telephone we were told that even though their schedule change caused the overnight, they would not compensate our clients.
We checked the American website for their policy on delays and found the following: “If the delay or cancellation was caused by events within our control and we do not get you to your final destination on the expected arrival day, we will provide reasonable overnight accommodations, subject to availability.”
After reading this, we contacted American. We were told that this policy does not apply to schedule changes and no further explanation was offered. American did say they would send my clients $100 in vouchers that could be used for future travel within the next year.
— Dora Bourgault, Cleveland
Answer: Airlines’ contracts of carriage and customer service plans delineate their policies and procedures, and reading through them can help you understand–and ask for–what you’re due if there’s trouble. But you have to make sure you’re quoting the relevant section to get satisfaction.
When Bourgault didn’t get the answers she wanted from American’s reservations agents, she and her clients turned to American’s customer service plan online. That was a good start. But she mixed up two clauses of that plan which spell out completely different scenarios, confusing flight delays and cancellations with schedule changes.
When flights are delayed or canceled, airlines may have some responsibility to assist customers. Depending on the airline, it may pay for your hotel room if you’re stuck for the night, plus give you meal vouchers and telephone calling cards, but only if the problem was something under the carrier’s control. There are no federal requirements that airlines do anything for its delayed passengers; that’s when it’s helpful to check the contract of carriage to know your rights.
But a schedule change is another matter entirely. An airline ticket is an agreement to transport you from point A to point B, but not always according to schedule. American’s contract of carriage puts it this way: “American will endeavor to carry you and your baggage with reasonable dispatch, but times shown in timetables or elsewhere are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract.”
Airlines change their schedules all the time. Most of the time, changes are relatively inconsequential; a few minutes’ shift in arrival or departure times typically don’t affect most fliers. Sometimes, though, a schedule change will wreak havoc on your plans, whether that means preventing you from making a connecting flight or simply cutting into your hard-earned vacation time.
But the airlines won’t take responsibility for that either. On that point, American’s contract of carriage 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.”
That doesn’t mean travelers are necessarily left in the lurch. If an airline makes a significant schedule change that renders your itinerary unworkable (or just doesn’t jibe with your own schedule), it will try to rebook you on an alternate flight, on a space available basis. If that doesn’t work, the airline will refund your fare without penalty. What qualifies as a substantial schedule change depends on the carrier. American’s contract of carriage doesn’t specify a timeline, while United’s rules stipulate that a two-hour shift in arrival or departure time is grounds for rebooking or a refund.
A schedule change on Bourgault’s clients’ return flight from their Saint Lucia honeymoon meant that they couldn’t make the minimum connection time in Miami, according to American representative Tim Smith.
“We offered them an earlier flight out of the George F. L. Charles Airport (the other airport also in St. Lucia) that would not require an overnight stay,” says Smith. “They did not accept it.”
Bourgault indicated that her clients had already booked a morning tour on their departure day, so the alternate flight wasn’t an attractive option. Since American does not typically place passengers on another airline due to schedule changes, that left only the refund option. But this too hit a glitch, because according to American, Bourgault’s clients’ record locator did not contain any passenger contact information, so the airline was unable to contact them to verify the refund request made through its customer relations department.
After I sent Bourgault’s complaint to the airline, American refunded the couple the full $434 per ticket. It also told them to keep the $100 in vouchers it previously sent as a gesture of goodwill.
How can you avoid trouble?
• Allow extra time around your flights, since schedule changes can make a mess of your plans. Take steps to prevent expensive disappointments: Don’t book nonrefundable excursions on your arrival or departure day, for example, and don’t fly into port within hours of your cruise departure.
• Make sure your passenger record has your contact information. Airlines attempt to notify its customers of significant schedule changes, but I often hear from travelers who don’t learn about changes ahead of time. Give the airline a number where they can reach you during your trip–a voice mailbox you won’t check until you get home won’t help much. Set your spam filter to accept notification e-mails from the airline or your travel agency.
Linda Burbank first began troubleshooting travelers’ complaints for the Consumer Reports Travel Letter. She now writes regularly for Consumers Union publications and is a contributing editor for National Geographic Traveler. E-mail her firstname.lastname@example.org. Your question may be used in a future column.