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If American Airlines changes your schedule, here’s how to get a refund

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Can American Airlines make wild changes to your flight schedule and, if you object, refuse to issue a refund? 

With $8,171 on the line, that’s what Michael Spanel wants to know after his recent experience with American Airlines. 

He booked four tickets from Richmond, Virginia to Athens, Greece, with a connection in Philadelphia. When he discovered by accident that American Airlines had significantly changed the flight schedule, he asked for a refund. But the airline swiftly rejected his request and gave him an $8,171 flight credit instead. 

Now Michael is asking the Consumer Rescue team for help. He wants American Airlines to give his money back, and he’s hoping we can make that happen. 

So what is a passenger really owed when American Airlines changes their flight schedule? Let’s find out.

Booking flights for a spring vacation to Greece

In November, as days were getting shorter and the air was turning chilly, Michael and his wife turned their thoughts to the warm islands of Greece. 

“We thought we would get a jump on airfare increases for next spring,” Michael told me. “So I checked, and it seemed that the best fare and flight schedule round trip would be on American Airlines.” 

Michael booked the four tickets for his family for a total cost of $8,171. A few minutes later, American Airlines sent him a confirmation of the flights. He scanned the details and confirmed that the dates of travel and names of all the passengers were correct. 

They were all set.

Next, the family happily set about planning the rest of the details for their late spring vacation. 

The trip was coming together very well.

Until, suddenly, it wasn’t.

Surprise! American Airlines changed the flight schedule (in a big way)

About a month later, Michael signed into his American Airlines account to check their trip’s seat assignments. That’s when he got a shock. The itinerary now bore little resemblance to the one he had booked weeks earlier. 

American Airlines had changed the flights so that now we were connecting through New York City. That wouldn’t have been so bad, but these changes American Airlines expected us to accept included a ground connection. They had us landing in LaGuardia from Richmond, and then our flight to Athens took off from JFK.

Michael S.

That’s right. The new schedule changes included an American Airlines flight to LaGuardia connecting to an international flight at JFK – miles away. 

For those unfamiliar with New York City – those 11 miles cover some of the most traffic-filled highways in Queens.

American Airlines changed the family's flight schedule to include a land connection between two airports in New York City. This graphic shows the distance between JFK and LGA airports.
The ridiculous schedule change that American Airlines created for the family included a ground connection that the airline expected the family to arrange for themselves (with their luggage).

Not only did American Airlines make this troublesome change to the family’s itinerary without telling them, but there was also no explanation for how Michael, his family and all their luggage should make this unusual ground connection. 

The travel time between the two airports can fluctuate from 40 minutes or so – to an hour or more depending on the time of day and number of vehicles on the road. 

FYI, there are no free shuttles between the airports, and a metered taxi costs between $40-$50, depending on traffic. But the price of this inconvenience could not be measured and certainly was not how the family wanted to start their Greek adventure. 

Asking American Airlines about a refund for this unusual schedule change

I immediately called American Airlines and told the customer rep this schedule change was unacceptable. She agreed that it was an unreasonable change and that I could get a full refund. We discussed the possibility of the flight change being temporary and if I should wait a few days before canceling the flight entirely. She assured me the refund had no time limit up until 24 hours before departure, so I could wait almost indefinitely. Based on that, I decided to wait a few more days.

Note: It’s important to point out here that what Michael says the American Airlines representative told him is not correct. After a passenger becomes aware of a schedule change, if they don’t ask for a cancellation and refund, the alteration becomes permanent with the same terms and conditions as the original flight. 

In this case, Michael only waited a few more days before he decided to rebook a more reasonable flight with Delta and cancel the American Airlines flight. 

“The American Airlines agent assured me I would get a full refund,” Michael told me. “So we canceled and booked the Delta.”

Michael was pleased to have the situation corrected and relieved not to have to worry about making a mad dash across Queens to try to make a connecting flight.  

But a new, more troubling problem was just about to begin – an $8,171 problem.

American Airlines: The schedule change is less than four hours, so no refund

The very next day, Michael received the disturbing news from American Airlines that it rejected his refund request. 

American Airlines formally rejects the family's refund request for the canceled flight with the unusual schedule change. This rejection goes directly against American Airlines' current policy.
The American Airlines Passenger Refunds department did not do the math correctly — this schedule change added over 5 hours to the itinerary and included an unusual ground connection.

Michael tried to appeal his complaint with American Airlines but received no response. 

With his $8,171 in jeopardy, Michael turned to the Consumer Advocacy team for help.

Does American Airlines owe this passenger a refund for the schedule change?

When Michael’s case landed in my inbox, it was just a few days before Christmas. This problem was weighing heavily on his mind, and I hoped to be able to put a quick and successful end to his battle.

Reading through his paper trail, I was certain that his refund had been rejected in error, but when I reached the last paragraph, my confidence sank.

In his frustration about American Airlines’ refusal to refund his cash, Michael had made a mistake – but one that many troubled consumers make.

For the time being, I am contacting my credit card company, telling them I dispute payment for the tickets. As you know, this is a stop-gap action to ensure I am not charged interest on the $8,100 while the dispute is being investigated.

Michael

Yikes! I quickly responded to Michael and warned him not to dispute this charge. 

Warning: Credit card chargebacks should always be a last resort

A credit card dispute often leads to more significant problems for the troubled customers who file them. That is especially true if the chargeback is filed too soon before the company has a chance to correct the issue.

I would venture to say that most consumers do not understand that a credit card dispute only ends their credit card company’s involvement in the problem. Even if you win the chargeback, the merchant involved is free to pursue you in any legal way they see fit to recover the debt. 

Worse, credit card companies do not investigate cases in the manner that our advocacy team does, so the rate of loss is high for the consumer if the merchant provides any response to the complaint. 

I have seen many situations over the years in which the consumer was correct but still lost the chargeback. And, of course, there are many cases in which the consumer won the dispute but ended up in collections.

Consumer Rescue agrees: American Airlines owes you a refund.

Luckily I caught Michael in time for him to put the brakes on his credit card dispute. I was now confident that we could fix this the right way, directly with American Airlines. 

It was clear that the American Airlines agent who reviewed Michael’s refund request had not considered several things. The schedule change American Airlines had imposed took off three hours earlier than the previous flight. It landed nearly two hours past the original arrival time. Of course, it also added that unusual and unacceptable ground connection in New York. 

I assumed an artificial intelligence bot had automatically rejected Michael’s refund request (or a mathematically-challenged human). 

So I sent Michael’s case to a real executive at American Airlines. That person is someone who I know cares about the airline’s customers. 

Asking American Airlines to refund this passenger for his schedule change

Hi ****!

…A few days ago, Michael received an alert from American Airlines about a significant flight change. American Airlines changed his connection airport to LGA instead of Philly, and then the international flight takes off from JFK! So he canceled the tickets expecting a refund (he says he was assured on the phone by an AA representative that this change would qualify for a refund). 

But now he just received a notification that he only qualifies for flight credit because the change in the arrival time to Athens is only two hours. This response seems to ignore the fact that the new flight schedule takes off 3 hours earlier, lands 2 hours later AND involves this family finding some way to easily transfer between LGA and JFK with their luggage (obviously not an easy task). This new suggested itinerary adjusts their flight schedule by 5 hours. 

Would you be able to have your team take another look at this case? The family would like a refund from American Airlines, not a flight credit. Thank you!😊

Michelle to American Airlines

American Airlines sends the good news!

As I expected, as soon as a crew of humans had a look at Michael’s complaint, there was good news.

Very good news. 

American Airlines reviewed the details of his schedule change and determined that the refund request was rejected in error.

Thank you so much for making this happen, Michelle! You really saved me a lot of time, energy and aggravation. 

Have a wonderful and safe Christmas!

Michael S.

You’re welcome, Michael! This is exactly why Consumer Rescue is here.😊

Here’s what you need to know about American Airlines schedule changes

Unfortunately, the pandemic inspired some policy changes within the airline industry that are unarguably unfriendly to passengers. Most of those policies, which were initially presented as temporary, appear permanent. 

Many airlines adopted new guidelines for the length of time of a delay before a customer can qualify for a refund. American Airlines is one of those carriers. Here’s what you need to know about American Airlines schedule changes as we head into 2023.

  • Four hours is the magic number: American Airlines now identifies a four-hour schedule change as the magic number. If the airline changes your itinerary in a way that increases your travel time by four or more hours, American Airlines will approve your refund if you choose to cancel. But…
  • A 90-minute delay at the airport:  If you’re at the airport ready to go and American Airlines delays your flight by more than 90 minutes, and you decide to skip the trip, you are eligible for a refund. But keep in mind that is the extent of the airline’s responsibility to you in the United States. You won’t be owed reimbursement for a hotel, car rental, or alternative flights to your destination.
  • Reject unreasonable changes: A passenger is under no obligation to accept an itinerary change that will require a land transfer which the airline is not providing. Regardless of the number of hours a schedule change involves, if it includes unreasonable components (like a connection between two airports miles apart), you can reject the update and request a refund. 
  • A canceled flight always qualifies for a refund: When American Airlines cancels your flight, it owes you a refund if you want one. But it might automatically send you a new itinerary that may or may not fit into your plans. Before accepting the replacement flight, make sure you agree to the new itinerary because you won’t be able to change your mind later. If in doubt, ask for a refund so you can rebook an itinerary of your choice. We know that sometimes an airline might imply that you’ll receive a voucher if you don’t accept the new suggested replacement flight. As much as the airlines might wish this to be true, it isn’t. 

Remember, if the airline cancels your flight, the Department of Transportation says you qualify for a refund. No questions asked. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue)

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle Couch-Friedman is the founder and CEO of Consumer Rescue. She is a consumer advocate, ombudsman columnist, mediator, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Michelle is a public speaker, and her expert guidance has been cited in Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science, CNN, CNBC, Travel Weekly, Reader's Digest and more. You might even catch Michelle on tv helping fix a situation. :) Michelle is also an travel ombudsman columnist for The Points Guy and is the former executive director of the nonprofit Elliott Advocacy. During her six years in that position, she resolved thousands of cases for troubled travelers and other consumers. You can read hundreds of 5-star reviews Michelle earned during her service to the nonprofit since 2016 here on Great Nonprofits. Today, she continues to spend as much time as possible fiercely defending consumers and traveling the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Couch-Friedman or on Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook.