I’m going to let you in on a secret. American Airlines cases are some of the toughest we advocate. And there’s a reason. Because American Airlines is one of the most complained about companies — airline or otherwise.
What this means from an advocacy standpoint is that when a case comes in and it involves American Airlines, it must rise above all the rest. It must be so strong that our advocates feel compelled to seek relief.
Such was the case of Susan Franchi. I’ll let her tell you what happened.
After saving for many years, my daughter and I finally went on our dream vacation to Ireland late last year. While in Ireland, my husband of 32 years was unexpectedly diagnosed with a rapidly spreading, inoperable form of pancreatic cancer.
After finding out the heartbreaking news and being informed that my husband had only weeks left to live, my daughter and I, absolutely devastated, cut our planned three-week trip short after only two days. We contacted American Airlines immediately and were price-gouged to the tune of over $4,000 for a return flight home (in addition to losing the money we had already paid for our return flight home as part of our round-trip booking).
The booking agent we dealt with told us that we could receive some sort of compensation due to the extremity of the situation if we filled out some forms online. After my husband had passed, I had filled out these forms and had supplied the requested letter from our doctor explaining the urgency of the situation as well as my husband’s death certificate. After doing so, I was bluntly informed that American Airlines does not offer any kind of special pricing for medical emergencies and would not be assisting us any further.
After being left out in the cold, I tried to appeal to the CEO of American Airlines directly in December of last year, since no one else seemed willing to help us. I had written him a physical letter as well as an email, but received no response to either. Finally, in mid-January, I received an automated email response informing me that American Airlines had received my email but would not be following up with me at this time, instead merely assigning a reference number to my case and leaving it at that. Since then, I have heard absolutely nothing.
Our situation was not merely a fickle changing of plans but a time-sensitive emergency, and American Airlines showed us zero empathy. Every moment that our family was able to spend with my husband during his last days was precious, and we have no regrets about our decision to rush home to be with him. The fact that American Airlines was more than happy to price-gouge us when we were most vulnerable and going through the most emotional time of our lives makes me sick to think about and is an absolutely appalling representation of the company. Despite being loyal customers of American Airlines for years, we were kicked when we were down and then promptly forgotten. My family has been seriously wronged by American Airlines and has been dealing with the financial repercussions ever since. This kind of behavior should not – cannot – be tolerated and can most definitely not be ignored.
I tend to agree with Franchi. Not only had Franchi been hit with the worst possible news — her husband’s dire prognosis — she was also leaving Ireland 48 hours after she had arrived. It is clear even to those lacking a heart, but still possessing a brain, that Franchi was in a very bad situation. The words “pancreatic cancer” are words that nobody wants to hear, and frankly, I thought Franchi’s case was strong enough to make an impression — even on American Airlines.
While it was no decision at all, Franchi says leaving Ireland immediately is a decision they do not regret. Yes, she and her daughter traveled home on American Airlines. They had no choice. Time marches on, and she could not remain in Ireland a moment longer with the knowledge that her husband’s time on Earth was so short.
In fact, Franchi’s husband, Richard, lost his battle to cancer on November 29, 2015, just seven weeks from the date of her ticket change.
I wrote to our contact at American Airlines. I first apologized for keeping him so busy. (Remember, he hears from us a lot.) I asked him if he could review the case, admitted I hate these hard-luck situations, and understand the policies. (We occasionally throw ourselves at the mercy of the company, knowing they have full control over the outcome, with a policy to back their decision.) And I let it go.
A few weeks went by with no feedback. I wrote back to American to ask for a status update. American told me, in a very matter of fact fashion, that the case would be reviewed again. Our contact added, “As you know, we don’t have emergency/bereavement fares, but we sometimes waive the change fee.”
That comment didn’t mean much to me at the time, but in retrospect, it’s the announcement of the policy, which was about to stick to this case like glue.
When Franchi and her daughter decided to return home three weeks earlier than planned, they changed their return ticket, and American Airlines waived the change fee in view of their circumstances. Despite their situation, however, American charged them the last-minute, walk-up fare that only a business person traveling on an expense account would voluntarily incur. That’s how their return ticket, which they’d already purchased, bumped in price by $4,000.
Our contact at American Airlines wrote back, saying, “I looked at the history, and we did waive the change fees for both passengers. The notes also state that she was advised that a difference in fare would apply.”
And that was it.
American waived the change fee. So, in its mind, by waiving the change fee, the incredible price increase is justified.
I have no doubt Franchi was in shock when she arrived at the airport in Dublin and requested a ticket change. And I’ll bet that the reassurance from the likely sympathetic ticket agent that she could apply for the refund later was enough for her to not fight. But the suggestion that “we did our best” rings hollow.
Here’s a different outcome, American. You could have charged her the change fee, and not charged her the walk-up fare. Or, considering that a change fee is nothing more than a bottom-line-padding deterrent to punish passengers, you might have waived both the fee and the fare increase.
Franchi wasn’t asking for a refund. She was just asking for a little heart — something American was unwilling to give.
This outcome was perplexing because we’d had a number of significant advocacy successes at American Airlines. We successfully advocated the full refund of a family’s airfare after one passenger in the group was diagnosed with a seizure disorder. And we had happily mediated another case where a family got a full refund on their tickets after a passenger tore his ACL and was sidelined by surgery. Those refunds combined topped $10,000.
So what makes this American case different? Franchi used the tickets. Had Franchi’s misfortune been discovered prior to her departure from home, I have little doubt that American would have issued a refund, in view of the situation.
In this case, American waived the change fee, but largely stuck to its policy. Is it fair? No. Is it right? No. But we’ve learned something. American has set the bar higher. Now, only the worst American Airlines cases where the passenger hasn’t already left home should be considered by our advocacy team.
So, I ask you: Next time you leave home, will it be on American Airlines?