This week, as per the American Cancellation Policy they hanged the legal contract that flyers agree to when booking a ticket. Yes, I realize that’s a remarkably boring phrase. Understandably, no one wants to actually read through the terms and conditions when booking a flight.
However, it’s important for flyers to understand these policies when choosing an airline, as they determine how you’re treated when things don’t go as planned.
American’s latest changes strip away travel protections that flyers may expect when flying a full-service airline. With these changes, American aligns its policies closer to low-cost airlines like Spirit and Frontier than fellow legacy carriers Delta and United. Let’s dig into what’s changed. By Forbes
What American Airlines Owes You for Cancellations or Delays?
Perhaps the most notable change is to American’s responsibilities when there’s a cancellation or delay of more than four hours. In these cases, American Airlines has generally rebooked travelers on later flights—including on partner airlines and sometimes even competitors.
However, going forward, American Airlines clarifies that it only owes travelers a refund of the unflown portion of their ticket:
If we or our airline partner fails to operate or delays your arrival more than 4 hours, our sole obligation is to refund the remaining ticket value and any optional fees according to our involuntary refunds policy.
This may seem reasonable, but it can be a huge pain in practice. This policy now allows American Airlines to legally strand you at a destination and/or force you to book last-minute flights to get where you need to go.
Say you book a $200 round-trip flight to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Your flights down are uneventful. However, when it’s time to return to the U.S., mechanical issues lead to the cancellation of your American Airlines flight home. In this case, American Airlines can simply refund you $100 and leave you stranded in Cabo. To get home, you’d be left needing to buy a one-way international ticket—which is likely to be a lot more than $100—or use points and miles to save the day.
That may sound far-fetched, but a similar situation played out in 2018. After a blizzard caused the cancellation of two flights, Sun Country Airlines opted not to operate rescue flights, stranding 250 passengers in Mexico. As required by their Contract of Carriage, Sun Country refunded passengers the return portion of their flights. While they worked on finding another way home, flyers had to cover their own meals, transportation and lodging cost out of pocket.
American Airlines would likely avoid creating such a high-profile story, if only for PR purposes. However, according to its contract with flyers, AA has the option to strand passengers in just this way.
Changes to American’s Rebooking Policy
Another notable change to American Airlines’ Conditions of Carriage covers what the airline will do “when your flight is canceled or a delay will cause you to miss your connection.”
Previously, American Airlines’ policy was to “rebook you on the next flight with available seats.” Now American Airlines only commits to rebooking you on the next American Airlines or partner flight:
When your flight is canceled or a delay will cause you to miss your connection, we’ll rebook you on the next American Airlines or American partner flight with available seats.
For routes with multiple American Airlines flights each day, this policy may lead to just a delay of a few hours. However, on routes with one flight per day, this may mean a delay of 24 hours. That can be the difference between making it to a meeting or special event and not.
Does that sound unacceptable? In that case, American Airlines has now clarified that its only “contractual obligation” would be to refund the unused portion of your ticket:
If your flight was delayed or canceled and you don’t accept our alternative arrangements, or none were available, we’ll refund the remaining ticket value and any optional fees according to our involuntary refunds policy. Beyond that, we have no further contractual obligation.
Rebooking a Flight When You’re Upgraded
Another clarification that American Airlines added to its Conditions of Carriage affects those that have cleared upgrades:
We’ll rebook you in your originally ticketed cabin or class with your original form of payment.
Again, this may sound reasonable in theory. In the case of an elite passenger that received a complimentary upgrade on a domestic flight, it’s reasonable that American Airlines is only obligated to rebook the passenger in economy on a replacement flight.
However, not all upgrades are complimentary. For example, a traveler may have applied an American Airlines mileage upgrade to upgrade from economy to business class. For long-haul international flights, the cost to upgrade is 25,000 miles plus $350 each way.
Presumably, American Airlines would refund any miles, cash, and/or upgrade certificates applied to a flight when rebooking a traveler in their originally ticketed cabin.
But that could still lead to issues. American Airlines elite flyers may have applied a systemwide upgrade to the flight. After a recent change, travelers can now apply upgrades for travel beyond the now-shortened expiration date. So, an upgrade may have expired by the time you’re downgraded. That could mean you lose your valuable upgrade certificate entirely.
New Requirements for Getting Lodging When AA Delays You
American Airlines also clarified how passengers will get lodging covered when there’s a covered delay. If a delay or disruption is American Airlines’ fault (e.g., mechanical issues) or you’re diverted to another city, American Airlines will provide lodging if you “don’t board before 11:59 p.m. local time on your scheduled arrival day.”
However, you need to wait for American Airlines to book your lodging. AA added a clarification to its Conditions of Carriage that “we don’t guarantee reimbursement for hotel expenses if you book directly without written authorization from American Airlines.”
In practice, you’ll need to wait in line in the airport to get approved lodging from an airport agent—which may take a while. As Gary Leff from View from the Wing recently reported, American Airlines’ lodging booking platform has had so many issues recently that the airline sent out an advisory telling airport agents to “make a phone call or use the Chat function with Travelliance (TA Connection) to source and load more options” when there’s not enough availability.
Remember that airlines aren’t required to provide lodging when there’s a flight delay or cancellation due to situations outside of the airline’s control—such as bad weather or air traffic control strikes. To cover yourself for these situations, make sure to book your flights with a credit card that provides trip delay coverage.
American Airlines recently changed its contract with flyers to remove protections flyers may come to expect.
Now, AA explicitly states that it isn’t responsible for rebooking passengers when AA or its partners “cancel a flight or route.” If there’s a delay or cancellation, AA clarifies that its “sole obligation is to refund the remaining ticket value”—even if that means stranding passengers. And when AA does rebook you, the airline only commits to rebooking you “on the next American Airlines or American partner flight with available seats,” and not on the next flight out.
As bad as these changes sound, these policies better reflect what American Airlines was already doing in practice, based on recent experiences. While AA’s route network reflects that of a mainline carrier, their customer-unfriendly focus now more closely resembles that of a budget carrier. Now that you know about these changes, caveat emptor.
Exceptions to American Airlines’ New Policies
American Airlines now disclaims responsibility for delays and cancellations. However, AA isn’t off the hook for all flight delays and cancellations. Certain passenger protections are enshrined in law.
The most well-known of these traveler protections are EC Regulation 261/2004—usually referred to as just EU261. This regulation requires European Union airlines and airlines departing from the European Union to provide compensation for delays and cancellations that are deemed to be within the airline’s control.
For flights over 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles), flyers are owed €600 ($712 at current exchange rates) in compensation if the airline doesn’t get them to their destination within four hours of the originally scheduled time. And American Airlines can’t just change its Conditions of Carriage to avoid having to fulfill its requirements under EU261.
Note that airlines aren’t required to provide delay compensation for delays caused by bad weather, strikes, security situations or political unrest. Also, these air passenger rights only apply to flights by non-EU airlines (like AA) when departing the EU. This means that you aren’t covered for flights from the U.S. to Europe unless you’re flying on an EU airline.
What an American Cancellation Policy: Compare with Other Airlines
To recap AA’s Conditions of Carriage changes: If AA cancels or delays a flight, the airline’s only obligation is to refund the unused portion of your ticket. Let’s compare this policy with two other U.S.-based airlines.
According to Rule 19 of Delta’s Contract of Carriage, Delta passengers can request a refund “if there is a flight cancellation, diversion, delay of greater than 120 minutes, or that will cause a passenger to miss connections.”
However, that’s not the only option that travelers have. Delta commits to “transport the passenger to the destination on Delta’s next flight on which seats are available in the class of service originally purchased.”
If Delta doesn’t have a suitable flight—and it’s “acceptable to the passenger”—Delta may “arrange for the passenger to travel on another Carrier or via ground transportation.” Delta will even upgrade you “if space on the next available flight is available only in a higher class of service than purchased.”
As one of the most infamous low-cost carriers, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Spirit Airlines didn’t have a generous rebooking policy. However, Spirit’s policy isn’t to just refund and strand a passenger.
Instead, if there’s a “schedule irregularity”—such as cancellation or missed connection—” Spirit may rebook the guest on Spirit’s first flight on which seats are available to the guest’s original destination without additional charge.” Alternatively, travelers “also have the option to obtain a refund.” In other words, with Spirit, the customer at least gets a vote. source
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