When American Airlines Cancels A Route, Does It Follow Its Own Rules Or Are Customers On Their Own?

When American Airlines suspended its service to Sydney that meant my award itinerary to see my family was cancelled. I spoke to the airline and was told they would re-accommodate my business class award on Qantas… in coach.

American had said it was “proactively reaching out to customers scheduled to travel on affected flights to offer alternate arrangements.” Their alternative to business class is economy, it seems.

This seemed odd to me – in fact, at odds with the airline’s published tariff – which I was only able to find because the airline put it back online after a consumer complained to the Department of Transportation.

The airlines write their own rules, but they do have to post those rules and actually follow them. And what I found was Rule 80 (C)(3) which suggested American had two options,

  • Re-route on another American Airlines flight (and in some circumstances in a higher class of service), or

  • “Endorse the unused ticket for the purpose of rerouting over another carrier with whom AA has agreement to do so”

The only out they seemed to have would be claiming their decision to suspend the route, because they lacked the aircraft to operate all of the routes they’d scheduled, is the result of a force majeure event under 80(C)(4) of the tariff. I asked American whether that was the case.

An airline spokesperson told me that re-accommodation was “at carrier’s discretion.” But that’s not what the tariff says. They have the ‘discretion’ to choose either to re-accommodate on their own flight, or on another airline’s flight. (And the customer has the discretion to reject this and request a refund.)

I pressed further and was told, in effect, that American lacks an agreement with their joint venture partner Qantas to endorse the unused ticket.

There are no Protect Agreements in place for the SYD market. We are handling these as regular schedule changes. For revenue tickets, we can rebook to AA*/Joint Business partner (QF in this case), maintaining same origin/destination, and may book in the lowest available inventory, up to and including H in the main cabin. We could also book a QF Prime flight, if the same inventory was available, but in your case it was not available.

In other words American says they are unable to do either of the two things their tariff gives them discretion to choose between. And this leads me to wonder what on earth is the consumer benefit of a joint venture?

The notion that when American exits a market it will not honor reservations in their ticketed class of service on a joint venture partner has important implications for the notion of consumer benefit that they are claiming as they defend a government lawsuit against their JetBlue joint venture.

American is regularly exiting markets and turning those over to JetBlue in the Northeast. American’s position here would seem to suggest that they’re within their rights to reject or downgrade tickets they’ve issued as they reassign flying between the two partners. That’s consumer detriment, not benefit.

Joint ventures encourage one airline to exit a market in favor of another based on, for instance, available aircraft. And this isn’t supposed to matter to customers, at least that’s the promise. Except that it does matter, when American says that tickets they’ve issued in business class will only be honored in coach on their joint venture partner airline.

I’m not going to pursue a Department of Transportation complaint, even though American I think is presenting a tortured read of their tariff. There’s no harm to me because I was able to rebook on Air Canada one way and United the other. Still it would be interesting to get their take. It’s bad enough when airlines write their own rules, but worse when they stretch the rules they’ve written with impunity.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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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    on so many levels sadly but we are prisoners and they know it as they have a partial monopoly in many markets and the most amount of flights typically

  2. Wait, why don’t you complain to the DoT? It takes like 10 minutes to fill the form out; go through all of that effort investigating and speaking with AA reps etc for what gain? Filing the complaint would probably take as long as it would for you to write this very blog post … be an advocate for other people who are in your similar situation and have NO clue what a Tariff/contract of carriage even means.

  3. Yeah Gary shouldn’t you do the DOT path because it’s the right thing to do? And your readers would probably love to follow the outcome? You’ll be helping others too

  4. Why would you not file a complaint and report a follow up? It seems that you would be helping your case and other future customers by doing so

  5. submit it to the DoT and keep blasting AA over this trash treatment and ignoring their own rules

  6. Are we voting? I’d also prefer you file a DOT complaint. As noted, it’s easy and even if it’s not important to you it could help others. If nothing else, it would be interesting to see the response.

  7. Stories like this reinforce my decision to stop seeking status with this BS airline.

  8. Any lawyer know you can promise anything, but no contract is worth anything until you test it in court if one party is less than trustworthy. They’re playing a game of chicken with the consumer, because they know that the effort and expense of one consumer to enforce the contract is higher than the value the consumer would get from winning enforcement and they probably prohibit class actions in the contract, which is the only thing that would get them to pay attention.

  9. Quit whining! They ended the flight and could easily claim a force majuer event (due to COVID and Australia travel restrictions). IMHO AA could just refund the money (or miles). They are under no obligation to put you on Qantas business class if they don’t have the capacity. Do you expect them to buy you a damn ticket.

    About to drop this blog as you get worse and worse w the whining and “first world problems”. Wake up and understand how tone deaf this appears to many

  10. If first world problems are ignored we quickly become third world. This is a travel blog, the discussion is about travel. Go figure. Don’t let the door hit your sorry arse on the way out.

  11. I had something similar happen to me recently. Originally booked SEA-LHR via LAX on a web special in F. Schedule change caused a misconnect so I was rebooked on the SEA-LHR nonstop but in J. I wasn’t told of the change, I discovered on my own. Called and the (quite rude) rep rebooked me SEA-DFW-LHR in F, but without asking me if it was okay. It was not okay, so he grudgingly put it back on the nonstop.
    Not a week later, SEA-LHR nonstop was canceled (no notice again) and I was rebooked this time via ORD, still in J. Several phone calls totaling about two hours and I was able to convince them to rebook me on the BA nonstop in F.
    The end result was good but the constant changes without notice and the hours spent on the phone were beyond frustrating.

  12. Hi Gary;

    Any difference between the Qantas and jet blue agreements.

    AA kept me on a nonstop but put my wife on a connection through JFK on our way to Boston (our records were linked). The only chose for us to fly together was for me to take the connection through JFK (in winter). Jet Bluer had room but no dice.

    Link to the address and I’ll file a consumer complaint.

  13. This has been standard practice for award tickets in all airlines forever, where ha e you been? They can’t make QF accept an award ticket and they most certainly are not going to buy you a revenue ticket. Give it a rest.

  14. AA is going to have a very hard time justifying how they agree to carry some tickets passengers (those that paid with cash) and not others (those that paid with points) when the tariff makes no distinction between ticketed passengers based on how they paid and therefore applies equally to all.

  15. Not the least surprised at the alternative offered to you, and you have every reason to be ‘disappointed’/outraged.
    The JV between AA and Qantas has always been rubbish and never provides any meaningful benefits to passengers. Just an avenue for grubby collusion to screw their customers it seems.
    As the AU-US pacific route has traditionally been heavily patronised for years, Qantas feels no need to offer any other than a rare F seat, or Business, to its own QantasFrequentFlyers, least of all to its OW partners. Plenty of Economy, which from LAX. SFO or DFW would be my idea of hell.
    Not known as the Queen of Mean for nothin’ !

  16. Seems like the right thing to do to file a DOT complaint. It does seem silly that since it isn’t affecting you anymore you don’t care to pursue it? What was the point of the post then.

  17. I had loyalty for AA since childhood for sentimental reasons and it took me 14 years of my adult life to realize what an utter shit show they are and I must have been insane to hold this or any company to this high regard ESPECIALLY when they’re not worth it. Horrible company and the new CEO will hold that status quo come oasis hell or high water. Fuck’em

  18. Gary, I join all the others in hoping you’ll file a complaint. AA will continue to treat its customers this way — with impunity — unless they are required by their regulator to cease. And you’re far more knowledgeable about what they’ve done and why it’s not OK than 95% of AA’s customers. As others have suggested, please do this and then report to all of us who read your blog on what happens with the complaint.

  19. Add to this their operational unreliability and you have the reasons why this former EXP and current 1MM-Gold has been actively avoiding AA for the past couple years. I took one flight BOS-JFK on the A321T and it was delayed 90 min. Should have trusted the data and my gut. Also, sorry Vasu – the network can’t be the added value of AA if it doesn’t protect customers when it exits markets.

  20. If Gary is going to read the comments, this is the perfect article to do it… Let’s get that DOT complaint!

  21. Gary reads his responses and the silence on his end tells you he will not be standing up for us little people.

  22. My parents in law had a biz Qantas award on Cathay via HK from Sydney to Chicago. They missed the connection in HK and the Qantas desk said they would fly them to la in economy and they could make their own way to Chicago. No thanks. After 60 mins on the phone they finally swapped them to biz on American direct even though the seats had no awards. It can be done!!

    Incidentally just flew Qantas j with my son dfw to syd on two award seats. Used my simply miles. Not bad for around $700 for the two of us! They do pop up here and there (I have one seat in f on the return to la on the a380. )

  23. You do need to be Platinum or P1 to even see such award availabiity. 99.999% of members can’t!
    Of course those plebs (yes, me included) can ring the Call Centre if you can set aside an entire day to get someone who may not help you.
    Again you need to be the higest status to have a number to ring for a better experience.
    If you are not a high spender and a certified sychophantic loyalist, Qantas does not really want to hear from you. Deal with it on-line or don’t have it dealt with at all is their new motto it seems.

  24. I found the availability multiple times this month with expert flyer. Bookable on American and Alaskan.

  25. Gary, your quote of rule 80(C)(3) lists only two of the 5 options provided therein. See https://www.aa.com/content/images/tariff/american-airlines-general-rules-of-the-international-tariff.pdf PDF pages 142-143.

    It seems to me the real question is who gets to decide. Is it AA’s choice or the passenger’s choice? In prior DOT proceedings, AA said it should be their choice. But new boss in town, new understanding of the harm of AA doing so, and as you point out the AA-QF deal is antitrust-immunized. These are good facts for passengers. You would be doing the traveling public a service if you pressed the matter.

    The correct way to raise a question of this seriousness is a public “formal” DOT complaint. Instructions at https://www.benedelman.org/dot-complaints/ . This goes to an AA attorney (not a customer service rep), gets docketed for everyone intersted to read and even comment on, and get a decision by a senior person at DOT. Definitely some work. But you have the expertise, Gary, where most affected passengers do not. And you have been personally harmed. The availability of another routing using different points does not negate that harm. You’re obviously especially lucky to have been able to find availability, and to have multiple kinds of points available in sufficient quantities for this distance and class of service.

  26. @mike s. – actually the silence was because I was flying long haul for a full day 🙂

    There are lots of references to it being ‘easy’ to file a DOT complaint. The informal complaint process is indeed easy and gets DOT assistance in mediating an individual complaint. That does not help readers and doesn’t create precedents. What is needed is a FORMAL complaint which is an entirely different undertaking and effectively necessitates the assistance of subject-knowledgeable counsel and multiple filings against AA counsel.

  27. @gary: it sounds like (your) public’s opinion is that we want you to file the FORMAL complaint. It will make for great reading and I am sure that someone here is, or knows, a person that could help identify a subject-knowledgeable counsel.

    Personally (and I am in no way a subject-knowledgeable counsel), I think AA has delivered exactly as their agreement/rules proclaim:

    THEY COULD NOT: “Re-route on another American Airlines flight (and in some circumstances in a higher class of service)”

    AND THEY OFFERED: “Endorse the unused ticket for the purpose of rerouting over another carrier with whom AA has agreement to do so”.

    Yes, the ticket was offered in coach vs business, but the above endorsement does not specify it should be in the same class/fare bucket. All it says is they will try and reroute over another carrier.

    So I think your chances of gaining anything meaningful out of the complaint are small. Especially because I assume AA have reimbursed you all miles and cost incurred when you cancelled and took your business elsewhere. But it would be a fun read.

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