Via TravelingBetter I learned about an interesting consumer complaint to the Department of Transportation against American Airlines and an even more interesting response.
It strikes me that there’s a ton of disingenuousness on the part of lawyers for a major air carrier but also some interesting insight into how their systems work at the same time. So I thought it was worthwhile unpacking.
- American accused the consumer of “creat[ing] fictitious reservations..to block premium seats for the sole purpose of obtaining AAdvantage upgrades.”
- American took 60,000 miles as a penalty.
It used to be quite common to hold premium seats to prevent others from buying those seats, then cancel just prior to the flight. It wouldn’t guarantee that you were at the top of the upgrade list, but it would ensure there were seats left for upgrades.
Understandably this is a very big deal to an airline and something they’ll come down hard on. They’ve put lots of procedures in place to make it very difficult to do in the modern era. Along the way some techniques employed have been approaches like refusing to process any upgrades at all within 72 hours of a flight. So overbooking a flight would mean an airline was less likely to process upgrades at all, rather than more likely to ensure the offending passenger received an upgrade.
Airlines track IP addresses of computers making reservations, and look for patterns. If one computer makes several reservations in a row, and they all go unticketed or they all get refunded, odds on there was something squirrelly about the bookings. And if they can be traced to a passenger on the flight then they’re going to go after the offender.
- This passenger didn’t actually make fictitious bookings. Instead, they kept walking through the process to search a flight in order to obsessively check for remaining seats, in hopes they would get an upgrade.
- They didn’t put any reservations on hold.
- They did enter passenger names that were not their own — because American is pretty strict, compared to any other airline I’ve had dealings with, in guarding against duplicate bookings. (If I want to put a reservation on hold, and apply an existing reservation that would be for the same dates to pay for the new booking, I have to either cancel the old one first or change the old one — a new booking will quickly get zapped before I even get through on the phone.)
- American apparently pulls seats out of inventory during the shopping process, before a customer actually holds the booking.
- Nowhere that I can tell does American say this on their website.
By obsessively checking space on the flight, apparently unbeknownst to him he was pulling seats from inventory. And American viewed that as fraudulent.
He should have checked available seats on a seatmap for the flight without going through the booking process, but American doesn’t really make this functionality obvious.
Or he should have had an Expertflyer account. That’s a pay service that will show things like American Airlines inventory (which is blocked from most sources) along with other airlines’ space and even email you when specific space opens up or when preferred seats become available.
But it’s hard to expect a consumer to know to subscribe to someone else’s paid service you do not tell them about.
Indeed, I did not even know until the last few months about seats getting removed from inventory during the shopping process and I’m reasonably well-informed about such things. It seems disingenuous for American to expect consumers to know this, since they do not disclose it and most would not.
Though the complainant never pressed a button to hold, reserve, or purchase a ticket American’s reply refers to his actions as “fictitious bookings,” “business class bookings,” “fictitious reservatoins,” “systematically booked,” and “false reservations.” I do not see how they can make that claim with a straight face. That may be what happened but if so it’s a flaw in the design of American’s systems or in the instructions they provide to consumers.
In fairness to American, he did this a lot. He apparently caused 28 reservations to be made resulting in 45 seats being pulled from inventory over the course of 41 hours. I get that that’s a lot, but I also know how obsessive I can be about upgrades especially for an intenrational flight. And in this case for an excited customer about to experience international business class for the first time.
American claims this is a contract dispute and not the province of DOT action. That would mean the consumer could only sue American over the miles (in state court but without the benefit of state-level contract claims). Indeed, the Department of Transportation has declined to regulate frequent flyer programs although the penalty here relates to the frequent flyer program but the actions that lead to the penalty do not inherently so relate.
Presumably American recognizes they were unreasonable because they state that they offered to settle, and return the full 60,000 miles to the complainant’s account in exchange for a non-disclosure agreement. The member wants the Department of Transportation to rule, and I’d be surprised if the DOT sided with the consumer here.