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Where’s the refund for my canceled flight?

Christopher Elliott
Have a travel problem? Want to avoid vacation hassles? See what Christopher Elliott has to say. The Charlotte native is also National Geographic Traveler's reader advocate, and Travel Troubleshooter is his syndicated consumer column.

When Kristen Nordlund’s flight is canceled, she’s promised a refund. But it never arrives. What now?

Q. I recently booked a last-minute flight with American Airlines because my father was scheduled to have surgery the following day. American canceled my flight 20 minutes prior to boarding. At the gate, I was told that I could either fly to another city or go to a different gate if I wanted a refund.

I went to the second gate and was told that I would receive an email confirming my refund. The next day I called American because I had not received the confirmation. I was told to look in my spam folder. It was not there.

I called the airline again, and the person I spoke with told me that American didn’t send emails confirming refunds, and didn’t understand why other American employees had told me to expect one.

I never received a refund, and, after calling the airline a couple of more times and being told that it takes a while to be refunded, I initiated a dispute with my credit card company. American now claims that I’m not entitled to a refund because I bought a nonrefundable ticket. Can you help? Kristen Nordlund, Plano, Texas

A. I’m sorry to hear about your father, and I hope his condition has improved. If American Airlines canceled your flight, it owes you an immediate, no-questions-asked refund. Instead, it gave you the runaround, followed by a denial.

What’s particularly galling is that you bought a last-minute ticket, the kind normally reserved for business travelers who are on an expense account. Those are usually twice as expensive as the advance-purchase tickets bought by everyone else, sometimes much more. Often, they are refundable – not that it makes any difference.

If an airline fails to operate a flight, it must refund your money. No “ifs,” “ands” or “buts.”

Instead of filing a credit card dispute, I might have taken it up the chain of command at American first. I list the names, numbers and email addresses of American’s executives on my website: http://www.elliot.org/contacts/american-airlines-2.

Even a cursory review of your case by a manager would have shown that American was in the wrong. Had that not worked, you could have appealed your case to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Aviation Consumer Protection Division, which could have helped the airline see the error of its ways.

A credit card dispute is a last resort for a refund problem like yours. It’s a process that appears to be fairly automated, and it generally favors the airline. For example, if your ticket is nonrefundable and the flight isn’t canceled, all an airline must do to prevail is show the credit-card-dispute department its fare rules, and it wins.

I contacted American Airlines on your behalf. A representative investigated your claim and blamed the refund problem on an “agent error.” American refunded your ticket.

Charlotte-born Christopher Elliott is the author of “How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler (and Save Time, Money and Hassle)” (National Geographic). He’s also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips or contact him at his website: www.elliott.org.
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