Moral Conundrum: Do I Need to Chase After American to Give Them Money They Incorrectly Refunded to Me?

I upgraded my wife’s domestic Austin – Dallas – Washington National flight recently with $75 and 15,000 miles from her account. She wound up having to cancel the flight. I called to redeposit the miles and of course there’s a $150 redeposit fee since the miles didn’t come from a top tier elite account.

It was a tough choice whether to pay $150 for 15,000 miles considering how many AAdvantage miles I have, but I went for it.

Her miles didn’t redeposit, and the $150 wasn’t charged. So I had to call again to follow up. I sent an email to AAdvantage Customer Service, but they wouldn’t deal with this in writing and insisted that I call. I got around to calling after a few days, the agent researched the history of the reservation, and the miles were then redeposited while I was still on the phone.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and the non-refundable ticket that was cancelled (which cost less than the $200 change fee) was just refunded. Ooops.

I don’t deserve to get the $172 back from her cancelled ticket. And if there was a way to easily flag this with an email or a twitter direct message where American would fix this and charge me, I would do that in an instant. But there’s really not.

What’s my moral obligation here? How much time should I have to spend to get American to take money from me? The time is likely to be worth a good bit more (based on my consulting rates) than the amounts involved. Maybe that shouldn’t enter into the moral calculation but it feels to me like it should as an indicator of how costly it would be to tilt at this windmill.

Is it wrong to just accept the error and move on? Do I need to do my own internal accounting accepting a similar sized error in AA’s favor in the future? Or is that insufficient since I can’t be an objective arbiter where it’s my own money and travel involved — and especially since I chase after American when they overcharge readers?

I don’t want the $172 that I don’t deserve, but I don’t want to spend time fighting American to get them to take back the money either. What’s my obligation here?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Having spent too much of my own time trying to get airline refunds I was owed and getting redeposited miles properly credited, I would have no hesitation in keeping the money until/unless AA came looking for it. Some years ago, in my Exec Platinum days, I had gone into an AA office to make a change in a F RTW ticket which was on AA stock, but most of the flying on Qantas and BA flights. Months later, Qantas charged my Amex account for the same ticket that AA had been paid for. The error was by Qantas but I got nowhere with them. Eventually a kind hearted assistant in the AA CEO’s office took it upon herself to get it all straightened out, but non-billable hours involved were quite considerable. Keep the money!

  2. “Bank Error in Your Favor: Collect $200.”

    Should you keep it? Perhaps not.

    Wait another month or two for them to come calling. If they don’t, donate it to a charity of your choice in their name.

  3. The problem with American and most other airlines, is they make so hard to get a refund of any kind. And when they screw you, you get burned big time. So, I’d bank the money for such occasions.
    If you fly often, it’s just a matter of time before American will owe you some sort of credit, and they will refuse to pay you. So KEEP THE MONEY.

  4. I’d feel justified morally after making an attempt, by either phone or email, to notify American of the mistake and offer to resolve it.

  5. “You can never be wrong in doing right, and you can never be right in doing wrong.”

    IMO, you asking if you should call confirms that you know you ought to, so call them, explain the situation, and see what they say. As an ex plat you can probably do that in 5 mins, which is probably less than it took to write this post. (Not trying to sound sarcastic btw).

  6. I agree with Robert, One attempt is the moral obligation . But I might consider that you already had wanted to fixing the original error ( not getting the refund); no I wouldn’t chase them with even one more call because it’s an error on top of an error.

  7. To me there’s basically no moral difference between saying nothing and saying something you know they’ll ignore just to be able to say you said something. That said, I certainly wouldn’t go out of my way to waste an hour climbing the ladder of phone supervisors to get them refunded …

    So if you’re comfortable with “for all the times they’ve F’d me out of money I’m keeping it,” then I’d go that route. If you’re not OK with it, I’d wait ~60 days to make sure they don’t come calling then donate it to charity.

  8. i think just send a casual email to AA that it was refunded in error. if someone doesnt followup, oh well – dont feel guilty anymore since you did send a small notificiation.

  9. Try again, then put the cash in a cookie jar (figuratively) and wait for them to ask for it. After a reasonable amount of time passes, take your wife out to dinner. I bought a camera from Nikon once, it showed up in the mail and I was happy. The next day another camera showed up, and this one had extra lenses! I could have simply logged on to ebay and sold it for a sweet price, but instead I called Nikon. Same thing. “Our records show your camera was delivered sir” – “But you sent me two, not one!” “As long as you are happy with the camera….” Huca. Huca again. Finally someone realized that I could have stolen $700 worth of equipment and they took it back.

  10. Hey – follow up on this. In Nov, Hilton failed to charge me a large sum of points for a 5-night stay. I called all kinds of people and now this many months later, I still have never been charged points or cash, so I figure after due diligence I get another vacay out of it. Anyone have experience as far as whether there’s an audit at some point or other unexpected results as far as attempting to use them again/later?

  11. You should use it to start a charitable organization that seeks to enrich the lives of the countless….mehh, screw it…just keep it.

  12. I agree with Eric FD that I’d send a casual email and not invest more time in the issue. On the other hand if they rip me off for say $172 down the road on another issue then don’t be upset. Call it even.

  13. Hell No. Airlines will rip you off at every possible chance. They may make sure they do it legally but it certainly isn’t moral.

  14. Sadly, if you reach out to correct, they might issue another $172 refund.

    My experience has been they ignore you when you’re owed money and act fast to further mess it up when they’ve sent you too much money by mistake.

  15. I’m not going to chase a fortune 500 company and tell them to take money they gave me if they don’t want it. To each their own. Quite frankly, i have more productive uses of my time.

  16. Don’t bother calling or emailing. The time it will take for various people at AA to dig through the records and sort this out manually will cost the company more than the $172 they’ll get back, resulting in a net loss. If you don’t feel right keeping the money, donate it to a worthy cause and have them send the receipt to AA headquarters.

  17. I’ve faced many similar circumstances and ultimately landed on a simple principal that is almost universally accepted (think it through before you roll your eyes): “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you”.

    I only employ this method when expectations are gray and not clearly stated.

    So – put yourself in the hypothetical position of CEO of AA. What amount of time and effort do you want Gary to feel obligated to put into correcting this issue? What responsibility do you take for your own internal complexities and to what extent would you feel right (and that it’s in your best interest) expecting the customer to track you down over $172?

    A self-serving person can twist the above to their advantage, but if you’re wrestling with what to do, that issue does not apply and you are in a good position to benefit from this exercise.

  18. Offer to return $172 minus your billable rate for the effort it took to follow-up on the points redeposit.

    As it is likely greater than $172, move on.

  19. I’m in the “bank error in your favor camp” and I won’t even call once. They want it? They can figure out I have it and come get it.

    Possession is 9/10 of the law? Finders keepers?

  20. Cut AA a check with a short explanatory note and send to their customer service center. Leave with a clean conscience. If AA cash it before it goes stale you’ve incurred no loss. If they don’t you’re up a few bucks. Either way you’ve fulfilled your moral obligation.

  21. From my experience it’s nearly impossible to give money back.
    I recall one year my father-in-law received a school tax bill for $0.00. He made the phone call and, strangely, was told the tax bill was correct. After that I would have guessed each succeeding year the bill would be $0.00
    No, it didn’t happen…the bill normalized for the next year.

  22. If they accidentally charged your card an extra $200, and you didn’t ask for it back, they wouldn’t chase you down. So why should you have to chase them down? If they ask for it, you can pay them back (after making them jump through a few hoops if you want to be fair).

  23. I can’t think of any large corporation, in any industry, that I would chase for one minute to correct an error like this. And I’m no anti-capitalist, quite the opposite. It’s just they make it so hard to deal with them, and almost never proactively correct errors like this, so I don’t feel any obligation, especially given my time AND their time. It all comes out fair in the end (or more likely, in their favor anyway).

    If I were dealing with a small business, I would look at it on a case-by-case basis, mostly depending on how much I liked doing business with them. But a large corp? Nah.

  24. @Gary —> Here’s the problem: you blogged about it. Had you kept quiet, you could have kept the money, but since you posted about it here, you need to give it back. Should you give it to charity, you know AA will just demand you refund it and you’re be out double!

  25. I find it amusing how people can use the terms “morals” and “airline” in the same sentence.
    A corportation, ESPECIALLY an airlilne, has no morals. they aren’t a living being.

    It would be a different story if this were your corner store, or a neighbor or friend, where the money would make a difference. $172 is insignificant in their books. It isn’t even a rounding error.

    I can’t imagine why anyone would go through the hassle that companies make it in order to contact them.

  26. Wow Gary, is it clickbait Friday?

    Given your recent hate for AA, might be best to wait to see if they come looking for it. In two months if they don’t, a nice enough gesture would be to buy pax/flight attendants drinks on your next AA or Oneworld flight.

    That should even it out.

  27. You people are nerds. Just keep the damn money. All about context. If it’s a family grocer, that’s one thing. It’s freaking AA.

  28. Take them in one dollar bills and put them in the thongs of beautiful single mothers that have to strip to feed their kids. This is charity.

  29. The fact that this is being debated is very disheartening, but not surprising. The answer is simple, it’s not your money and should be returned to the rightful owner. Whether it’s a company or an individual, keeping what isn’t yours is dishonest and immoral.

  30. I have no doubt that AA has previously failed to pay refunds or compensation that you deserve. Because I know United owes me and my employer money for flights that got cancelled, downgraded etc. and I am sure this is the case for all frequent travelers who don’t have the time to track down and rectify every mistake.
    So I think the more interesting question is whether you can morally justify keeping the money as an offset? Do 2 wrongs make a right? Should you hold yourself to a higher standard than the airline? Legally there is no question you could offset if they came after you (assuming you could dig up documentation on all the times they shafted you).
    But if you don’t agree with this rationalization then I agree with the charity donation because it will cost you more than $172 in time to figure out how to get them to accept a refund of the refund.

  31. I had an issue a few years ago with an airline where what should have been a partial refund for an IRROPS downgrade on a single segment resulted in a fairly substantial refund of the entire ticket. I called the airline given the large amount and was told they have no way to easily charge my card without something of value to assign it to, so to enjoy my good fortune.

  32. I think this is AA’s SOP. I booked myself on AA a few weeks ago and upgraded to more room (no status anymore because I fly AA about once a year) both directions when I selected seats.

    I’m fine on the outbound, but on the return, equipment change from an A321 to a A319 means my more room seat no longer exists and I’m back in a regular seat.

    I call AA to get my $ back for the upgrade I didn’t get and they refunded me for both the missed upgrade AND the one I actually got. I wasn’t unclear, the agent wasn’t unclear, I just got twice as much back as I’d expected.

  33. Well, I find it disappointing to read all of the comments that justify keeping the money based upon perceived airline slights, program devaluations, etc.

    Bad behavior by one party does not in any way justify your bad behavior in return. There’s right, there’s wrong, and there is moral relativism.

    Do the right thing. Write a brief letter, addressed to the airline accounting department, explaining the situation and offer to refund payment or include a check made payable to American Airlines. This requires little time or effort.

  34. It seems that this post constitutes “chasing down” AA. Is there any other info it would need to figure out you owe it $172?

  35. @James N:

    I agree with you philosophically. In an ideal world, the money should absolutely be returned to the rightful owner, and I have no doubt Gary would send it back without hesitation if AA asked for it.

    The issue in this case is not who the money belongs to, but whose responsibility it is to fix the mistake. AA made the error, so surely the onus is on it to correct it. I don’t know about Gary, but my time goes for around $300/hour. How much of my valuable time should I spend dealing with someone else’s problem? If it were a small local business or individual I’d do it for free, but not for a multi-billion dollar corporation. The most “correct” thing might be to give back the money minus the cost of my time, but that would probably end up close to zero.

    Of course, as I said before the cost to AA of tracking down and reconciling small amounts like this probably exceeds the money it’d get back. I’m not an accountant so I don’t know the proper jargon, but I imagine stuff like this gets written off as something like spoilage or bad debt. If it were worth AA’s time to chase little things like this, no doubt it would.

  36. Gary, you are making an assumption that an error occurred. Respectfully, I think you are wrong and the agent simply did not inform you of the full extent of the fix.

    The agent likely entered a refund order for the ticket together with the mileage redeposit. There was no error, only a goodwill gesture on the part of that agent (and/or the easiest computer data entry strategy for getting the transaction completed).

    Whether you called the Exec Desk directly or talked with a “regular” agent, you are no doubt aware that calls in the call center are answered “by the next available agent”. I’ve occasionally gotten my calls answered by the Concierge Key dedicated agents who get bored with not enough calls coming in to them. They go slumming on the regular Elite phone lines.
    In any case, the agent who answered your call knew your current status; that meant he/she could be more flexible in handling your issue.

    Your goodwill has value, in this case $172 worth. No business, large or small can ignore this intangible but very real asset. After all, most of your posts revolve around this very issue!

    If you really want to know what happened, the next time you find yourself in DFW with a longer layover, go to an Admiral’s Club (for preference in Terminal B since there is likely to be one or more of the most senior agents in that club).
    Ask them to pull up the record using the ticket number(s), That record will contain all the notes of exactly what happened, when it happened, and WHO made it happen. If I’m right, you’ll want to send a thank you note to that person in the form of a commendation, addressed to their supervisor.

  37. You have gone over and above what any reasonable person might be expected to do. Keep copies of your emails etc, and move on.

  38. I was also once been refunded 67,5000miles I didn’t deserve, but I spent it later on a CX first class flight to Taiwan. I originally booked a first class CX flight back in 2012 but later changed it to business class due to weather delay. I was refunded the 12,500miles in differences within a few days and I thought that was the end of it. Then a year later I had to cancel an award ticket paying the $150 fee to have the miles refunded but to my surprise 67,500 extra miles showed up along with the cancelled award ticket. I suppose it’s from the first class award ticket that I cancelled a year prior.

  39. @gary – good for you for having an ethical discussion. I’d do what I could to return the money.

    As for all the comments about clickbait…it’s good to see that so many people care about values and ethics enough to come here to comment!

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