American used to have its full ‘terms and conditions’ available online. They’ve removed the legalese entirely from their website and now offer a plain language FAQ-style conditions of carriage page.
However there’s still a general tariff, the contract of carriage incorporates it by reference, and customers effectively agree to it when they buy a ticket. They just can’t see it.
The general tariff includes more detail that the ‘conditions of carriage’ page on proper handling during irregular operations, as well as when refunds are due to customers (including how downgrade compensation should be paid). Consumer (and sometimes blog reader) Mike Borsetti filed a complaint with the Department of Transportation over American’s removing these rules from its website.
American has now responded to the DOT (.pdf) and the gist of their argument is that no DOT rule was broken (since DOT rules on the subject were written long before websites), Borsetti himself didn’t allege specific harm, and consumers can still get a copy of the tariff if they ask for it specifically.
- American says they incorporated their international rules into the ‘plain language’ Contract of Carriage of their website, and meant to take the tariff off the website at that point but failed to do so. They realized it was online still and took it off in May.
- And they suggest they aren’t required to have their full rules on their website, that instead the DOT only requires them to post notice that the tariff is available and make available upon request “at physical locations, under the control of the carrier, where tickets are sold.”
American’s argument boils down to DOT rules were never updated for the information age so they’re permitted to keep their rules off the website where customers would normally expect to find them. As American puts it, “[t]he tariff public inspection requirements were first adopted by the Civil
Aeronautics Board (“CAB”) in 1965, well before the development of the World Wide Web.”
In other words, American says they haven’t broken any rules because the rules themselves are broken. Crucial to American’s argument though is that its website is not a “ticket sales office.” Is a ticket sales office a physical place, or the place where tickets are sold?
- The rules said an airline’s tariff had to be available where customers purchased tickets
- But where customers purchased tickets change, and the rules did not.
American acknowledges that even if DOT hasn’t specifically said they have to post this information on their website, they have the authority to determine whether an airline’s action is ‘unfair and deceptive’. American says they’re not being deceptive because they provide full tariff rules to consumers who ask for them. But they have to know to ask!
According to an airline spokesperson,
We do not believe that DOT rules have been broken here and we have provided a means on aa.com for anybody to request a copy of the tariff.
I’ll leave it to DOT to determine whether American has violated any of its rules. They never offer any reason why they wouldn’t make the rules available online (though I asked for one). So I’ll leave it to the court of public opinion as to whether they’re just being jerks imposing rules on customers that they don’t tell customers about on their websites.