Family deserves apology for airline’s mechanical failures

Question: My family of four flew from Chicago to Salt Lake City on American Airlines during spring break. About a half-hour into our outbound flight, we were told that the landing gear did not come up and that we had to return to O’Hare.

Once we landed, we were not rebooked and no alternatives were available, no communications about other arrangements were known or announced. We were able to find an American Airlines agent at a different gate who tried in vain to find us a flight to Utah that same day.

She finally found a flight to Salt Lake City via Newark on Delta Air Lines.

Our return flight to Chicago was canceled by American Airlines, another broken plane. We finally departed midday and arrived home hours later than we planned.

We complained to American Airlines, but it offered us a form apology and 3,000 miles each. I asked them for a refund; the airline refused. Somehow, this is unjust and unfair. Can you please help? We lost two full days of our vacation because of their broken planes.

Renata Fidman, Chicago

Answer: Losing two vacation days is unacceptable, but not as disappointing as American’s canned apology and mileage offer. After all, nothing says, “I don’t care” like a form letter, and nothing underscores it quite like frequent flier miles that assume you’ll take another American flight.

But do you have a case? Have a look at American’s contract of carriage, the legal agreement between you and the airline. Section 3 suggests it owes you nothing for the inconvenience.

“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,” it says.

I disagree, despite the contract. Most reasonable passengers assume the planes will work, and are willing to forgive one mechanical delay. After all, it’s better to be safe than dead. But being rerouted to Newark and then experiencing another mechanical failure on the return flight, well, I think it’s not unreasonable to expect more than a form apology and a few miles.

Although there’s nothing you can do during a mechanical delay except ask to be rebooked on the next flight — which you did — you can be more proactive when you complain. You sent an email to American, but you could have appealed it to someone higher up the corporate food chain when the airline kicked back a form letter.

I list several helpful names and their contact information on my customer service wiki (www.onyoursi.de/wiki).

I contacted American on your behalf. A representative phoned you and offered a real apology and $800 in vouchers, which is somewhat better than the miles.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. He’s also the author of “Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals.” You can read more travel tips on his blog, www.elliott.org or email him at celliott@ngs.org.

&Copy; 2012 Christopher Elliott/Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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