Last March, my husband and I were bumped from an American Airlines flight from Dallas to Little Rock, Ark., due to a technical problem with the plane. It was late at night and there were no good options to get home. A supervisor was called in; we talked to him about just renting a car and driving to Little Rock and he said we would be reimbursed.
I sent our receipts by certified mail and emailed customer service. They said they would try to contact Dallas to get verification.
In the end, they emailed that they couldn’t determine what we were promised, so they needed to stand by their usual policy and not reimburse us for the driving expenses.
- Kim Everhart, Hot Springs, Ark.
Your problem made the ABC News Fixer think nostalgically about those little signs that used to hang behind the cash register proclaiming “The Customer is Always Right.”
And no, The Fixer does not believe that every customer everywhere is always right -- but that sentiment goes a long way toward keeping peace in the marketplace.
Unfortunately for you, in this case the airline is not going to pay you for your additional expenses.
Here’s what we do know: You and your husband were all set to fly to Little Rock when American’s plane experienced a mechanical issue. Everyone had to be put on a different aircraft, and that plane was smaller than the original one. This resulted in several people getting bumped, including you and your husband. (At one point, you said they offered you a seat but not your hubby, and you didn’t want to leave him in Dallas.) You described a flustered gate agent offering flights the following morning at 5:30 a.m. with a connection through Chicago arriving in Little Rock at 9:30 at night, a 16-hour trip. Yikes.
Then a supervisor came over. You said he got you a hotel room and meal vouchers, as it was getting late. As you considered your flight options, you decided it would be easier to rent a car and drive the five hours to Little Rock. You said the supervisor told you to save your car rental and gas receipts for reimbursement, and you did that (the car was $372.93 and gas was $28.88).
And then the dance began. The people at customer service couldn’t confirm that a promise was ever made, and you only had this guy’s first name and nothing in writing.
We contacted American Airlines and asked them to try to untangle this. They looked into it and came back with their verdict. They said in this type of situation, gate agents are only allowed to offer vouchers for future travel – not reimbursement for rental cars. They had given you two $500 vouchers and hotel and meal expenses, and they said that’s all they’ll do.
“We do apologize for the inconvenience and for any misunderstanding,” an American spokeswoman said.
We wish we had better news.
Your letter got us wondering, though, about other consumers who get bumped from a flight due to overbooking. That’s different from getting stranded due to weather, air traffic delays or mechanical problems – in those cases you’re at the mercy of the airlines because those causes are considered to be beyond the airlines’ control.
Most airlines overbook to make up for no-shows, though. When there aren’t enough seats, U.S. Department of Transportation rules require the airlines to seek volunteers to give up their spots in exchange for compensation – usually a voucher for future travel -- which the airline gets to determine. (Before you take such a deal, make sure you have a confirmed seat on the next flight out so you won’t be stuck at the airport – and find out whether the voucher has any restrictions.)
However, if you are involuntarily bumped from a domestic U.S. flight due to overbooking, and you had a confirmed reservation and checked in on time, DOT rules kick in and you may be entitled to a monetary refund. Here’s how that works:
- If you are bumped involuntarily and the airline arranges transportation that gets you to your final destination within one hour of your original scheduled arrival time, you don’t get any compensation.
- If they get you to your final destination but are one to two hours late, the airline must pay you an amount equal to two times your one-way fare, up to a $650 maximum.
- If they get you there but are more than two hours late, or if they don’t get you there at all, they must pay you four times the one-way price with a $1,300 maximum.
The airlines may offer you free tickets or vouchers for this money, but if you’re bumped involuntarily you have a the right to insist on a check, if you’d prefer that form of payment, according to the DOT.
One more thing: If an airline substitutes a smaller plane for the one it originally planned to use, they are not required to pay people who were bumped as a result. There are also some exceptions to the rules for certain smaller flights. The full rules are HERE.
And a final tip. Airlines have their own ways of deciding who might get involuntarily bumped. Sometimes it’s the cheapest fare people; sometimes it’s the last people to check in. You can reduce your chance of getting bumped by checking in early for your flight.
Most people groan at the thought of spending hours on the phone with a customer service call center, but Stephanie Zimmermann relishes the chance to slice through red tape.
Before joining ABC News, Stephanie untangled consumer problems at the Chicago Sun-Times, where her popular column recovered more than $1.4 million in refunds, credits, and merchandise for consumers in the Windy City.
Stephanie, who lives in Chicago, has also worked at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and has bachelor's and master's degrees from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. But most of all, Stephanie is a consumer who hates to see anyone else get ripped off.