Just when you thought conditions couldn’t get worse, they did.
American Airlines has changed its Contract of Carriage by adding this:
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.
In an industry already buried with complex, convoluted, and often incomprehensible policies and practices, struggling fitfully to emerge from pandemic suffocation, American has reduced traveler welfare one more notch. The change is not without controversy, of course, as two different and important commenters have somewhat conflicted takes.
Business Insider reports that American claims, “its underlying policies remain the same and that it will still work to help impacted travelers.” American told Business Insider that:
We recently made updates to our contract of carriage to more accurately reflect our Customer Service Plan and practices we've had in place for a few years. None of these updates reflect a change in policy, but instead, provide more detail about what customers can expect during travel in accordance with domestic travel regulations.
Industry consultant/analyst Henry Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research Group notes, however, that the new language creates an ambiguous standard that ultimately leaves passengers with zero remedies for flight delays of more than four hours. Noting, again correctly, that passengers should be able to understand the Contract of Carriage and that airline personnel may also rely on it, Harteveldt is concerned that the commitment of the carrier to get you where you were going could be undermined.
American says otherwise, that it will not affect the customer experience because, notwithstanding what the contract now clearly says, American “will still work to help impacted flyers when delays and cancellations strike,” and
Our hope with this written clarity is that customers who may have questions about their travel can more quickly find answers to their questions, rather than waiting in line or calling to speak with an agent.
I am unable to understand how a policy that says, “you get nothing but your money back,” bears on how quickly you can get questions answered, unless the true meaning is, “there are no questions to be answered – you get nothing, so don’t ask.”
Let me turn to the other view of American’s “not-new” policy.
The Cranky Flier actually approves of the language change because he says, it more accurately conforms to American’s actual practices.
Paraphrasing more than little, Cranky notes that the “least we can do” standard that Contracts of Carriage are intended to establish should at least be “very clear.” With that, I would not argue. His interpretation of the net outcome is that, after the “not-new” policy change, there will be less conflict, fewer fights over passenger rights and an unhappy peace will prevail more often when four-hour delays occur. Peace generally being a good thing, the net result will, he predicts, be more … peaceful.
Of that, I’m not so sure. Being told “your flight has been delayed for four hours and we’re calling it a day, so here’s a document showing your refund and have a nice day,” is not going to sit well with passengers. On the other hand, Cranky might say, “but that was what happened in practice before, so nothing really has changed.” Point.
On the other hand, there is something fundamentally unsettling about the possibility that an airline would just walk away in these circumstances, leaving the passenger with no flight option and a credit to her account. The idea of “consumer protection” that has waxed and waned over the years at the Department of Transportation should, I think, take up this question of the minimum obligation of the carrier once it has contracted to fly you somewhere. To paraphrase the old ASTA slogan, “on our airline, you’re on your own,” is not a sound transportation policy.
In any case, for the present, we are left with the not-new, “we owe you nothing but your money back” policy and practice at American and, likely, at other airlines. The cited article discusses some other airlines’ “you’re out of luck” policies that may be of interest to travel advisors.
As a travel advisor, you are not, of course, expected to explain all elements of the Contract of Carriage to every traveler you book. Doing so would consume too much time, serve mainly to confuse the average traveler, and lead to a great many “thanks, but I think I won’t be flying this time” conversation stoppers. While I think it’s advisable to be generally aware of the contents of the airlines’ Contracts of Carriage, you are not a lawyer, nor can you reasonably be expected to anticipate and address every contingency that could disrupt a client’s travel plans.
On the other hand (there always is one), if you’re booking someone into an area where, for example, bad weather may reasonably occur (the Caribbean during peak hurricane season, for example), you would be well advised to alert your clients to policies like that of American. If it’s true that American’s new Contract language reflects how it actually operates, your client should be made aware before they learn it at it the airport.