Jun 14, 2021

Surviving American Airlines’ ‘cancellation culture’

I should have known to expect problems with our return flights from our most recent trip to New Orleans. 

Flying for a quick Memorial Day weekend seemed like a good idea for a while, especially since we already had an Airbnb lined up and paid for.  The renter had been kind enough to allow us to rebook after we cancelled an earlier trip scheduled for February this year because COVID-19 effectively cancelled Mardi Gras.  If only American Airlines had the same customer service ethics.  As it turned out, cancellations became somewhat of a theme for the trip.   

The first hint that things were not destined to go smoothly came in an email two months before our scheduled trip. 

I get it.  Flight changes happen.  Departure times change, arrival times change, planes change.  But what struck a nerve with me was the return flight from New Orleans to Dallas-Ft. Worth.  American Airlines didn’t just change my flight time; they changed my flight.  I intentionally booked the second flight that morning scheduled to leave at 7:30 a.m.  American bumped us to the first flight out of town to DFW.  At 6 a.m.  Ask anyone who’s ever vacationed in New Orleans, and just about the last thing they want to do at the end of the trip is catch a 6 a.m. flight. 

Of course, I could change my booking if I wasn’t satisfied, but as I explored my options online I realized any changes would come out of my pocket, including reselecting the flight I originally paid for.  Looking back, I should have complained to the airline then and insist I be rebooked to my original flight at no extra charge.  But, I figured it was ultimately no big deal.  Just a little extra time at the DFW airport to kill, right?  


Fast forward to the afternoon before we’re scheduled to leave the Big Easy.  After waiting outside Acme Oyster House’s French Quarter location for 45 minutes for a table to open up, I got a text notification the moment we’re seated inside at the oyster bar. 

The related email came at the same time.  American Airlines had cancelled our flight to DFW – the same flight I was forced on by the airline in the first place!  Furthermore, we had just 17 hours’ notice.  I guess that’s better then having it abruptly cancelled while you’re at the airport, but when you’re expecting to leave town the next day, that’s not a lot of time to make new travel arrangements.   

With my appetite already spoiled, I started calling, and calling, and calling again, to try to get through to the airlines.  The best I could get was an automated promise for a call-back at a certain time later in the afternoon.  I choked down lunch as best as I could and waited.  

Then, about 30 minutes later, I got another text and email informing me our flight had been rescheduled for 9:30 a.m.  One big problem, though.  It was 9:30 a.m. on the day after we were scheduled to go home.  In other words, without any discussion with their customer, American Airlines effectively assumed we’d be content with being stranded an extra day and night -- no compensation offered, no free hotel room booked for us, nothing.   

Honestly, under different circumstances I’d be the last one to complain about being forced into an extended layover in the Big Easy.  However, with a Kiddo needing to be picked up at her grandparents’ house, pets to pick up from boarding and no vacation time available for Punky to take extra time off work, we absolutely had to be home the next day.  And I made all of this abundantly clear to the American Airline service rep when I was finally able to reach a live voice later that afternoon.  We either needed to be on a return flight tomorrow, or we needed a full refund of our airfare.

After an hour or so of going back and forth on the phone (the rep obviously had to get every decision she made approved by someone else), looking at other flights to Dallas and United flights to Chicago, then to our hometown of Springfield, Ill., I was fed up. I demanded the refund.  Then I could maybe get a rental car to get us home, and probably almost as quickly as the process of hurrying up and waiting at airports all day.   

Finally, mysteriously, after the rep was ready to get approval to process our refund, seats miraculously opened up on a flight out of New Orleans the following morning – the same flight I booked in the first place!!  Isn’t it funny how the airline suddenly became a lot more accommodating once they realized they would be losing money on us, as required by U.S. Department of Transportation policy.  

One would think American Airlines would have left us alone at this point, but even after we confirmed the flights we accepted and checked in online, they kept moving our seats for both the flight to Dallas and the connecting flight to Springfield.  It was almost like they were intentionally trying to not seat us together.  On the Dallas flight, I was bumped across the aisle.  Fine, at least we both had aisle seats “next” to each other in the same row. 

But why they kept moving seat assignments on the flight to Springfield mystified me.  Even more aggravating was the fact that I got bumped to a seat several rows behind my wife who, in turn, had an empty seat next to her for the whole flight!       

Looking back, I have a couple of very important takeaways from our experience with American Airlines’ “cancellation culture.”  First, don’t just accept a flight change forced upon you if it doesn’t suit your travel plans.  Get ahold of the airline immediately, and get it fixed.  Second, assert your right to a refund in the case of a cancellation or being bumped off a flight.  Get acquainted with your rights at the U.S. Department of Transportation website

And as long as I can still drive to New Orleans in one day, I’m taking my car. 

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