Q: I recently paid for a flight from Minneapolis to Chicago using frequent flier miles, plus a $75 fee. American Airlines canceled my flight, but a representative told me the $75 fee was not refundable. I called the airline and escalated my request to a customer service supervisor. He also told me the reservation fee was nonrefundable. I don’t think American Airlines should be able to keep my $75. Can you help me get a refund?
— Bob Schoenbaum, Edina, Minnesota
A: I agree with you. American Airlines should refund your fee.
The airline charges $75 for award tickets booked or mileage upgrades requested less than 21 days before departure. It discloses the fees on its website but doesn’t say the fee is nonrefundable. So, it’s reasonable to assume that you can get your money back.
The Department of Transportation, which regulates airlines, is crystal clear about refunds, too. If an airline cancels your flight, regardless of the reason, and you choose not to be rebooked on a new flight on that airline, you get your money back. All of it.
Your $75 charge belongs to a class of pesky extras commonly referred to as “junk” fees. These charges generally have no direct correlation to the company’s expenses and are simply a way for the business to make more money. The ticket change fees, which sometimes exceed the value of your ticket, are particularly egregious.
We could debate the value of that $75 fee until the cows come home, but let’s not go there.
And here’s another place we probably shouldn’t go: a debate on the value of loyalty programs. I think everyone knows how I feel about them. They’re a scam. Your case illustrates just how scammy. Not only did you have to give American Airlines your business, but it then charged you extra to use your “free” ticket. That’s some loyalty program, if you ask me.
It’s unclear why American refused your request. The DOT rules are clear, and American’s policy seems to directly violate them. This is an open-and-shut case if I’ve ever seen one.
You might have had a little more luck by escalating your case to an American Airlines executive in writing. Remember, you’ll have no record of a phone call unless you record it, which can be legally problematic. If you write, you can maintain a useful paper trail. I list the names, numbers and email addresses of the American Airlines customer service executives on my consumer advocacy site.
I contacted American Airlines on your behalf. It refunded your $75 fee.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the author of “How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler.” You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org, or email him at email@example.com. (c) 2019 Christopher Elliott
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