Linda George always arrives at the airport early when she flies, because she has to check her electric scooter before passing through security. But when she arrived at the Indianapolis Airport for her British Airways flights to Chicago, London and Brussels, the American Airlines agent at check in had other plans for her.
If you use a power wheelchair and have found that airline employees don’t know how to handle your equipment, you’ll want to know how to avoid this nightmare. And if you ever fly codeshare flights, you’ll want to understand how this airline marketing scheme can play against you.
“I travel with a scooter, and I specifically bought one that is approved for flight in the cargo hold without removing the battery,” George writes. “But the American Airlines agent insisted that the battery must be removed, even though it’s DOT approved and specifically designed not to come out.”
Unfamiliar with the rules about George’s scooter, the American Airlines agent demanded removal of the battery. After struggling with the battery for a while, George and the agent managed to disconnect the battery.
But then the agent told George she wasn’t going to make her flight. A Global Entry participant, George can usually get through security quickly and wanted to try to make it to the gate.
“The agent insisted that I couldn’t make my flight — and said I shouldn’t try,” George recalls. “She said she would ‘fix it,’ booking me on another flight to Chicago.”
Only the agent didn’t fix it.
George purchased her tickets to Europe on British Airways, a codeshare partner with American Airlines. And that small detail would come at a great cost, because the American Airlines agent couldn’t modify the British Airways booking.
“The agent kept disappearing to a back office and talking with a manager for what seemed like at least a half hour. Ultimately she handed me a telephone and said, ‘Talk to British Airways and tell them what flights you want.'”
George asked for the next flight to Chicago, which allowed her to catch her original flights to London and Brussels. The British Airways agent told her the booking was successfully modified — and that her credit card had been charged $12,424, plus a $500 change fee.
George’s business class tickets had originally cost $4,300, which was not refunded by British Airways. So George left for Brussels, having paid nearly $18,000.
Once in Europe, George disputed the charges with American Express, which went nowhere. And when she couldn’t get a refund issued, she opted not to use her return tickets, instead purchasing less expensive return flights on another airline. She rationalized that if her tickets hadn’t been used, perhaps she could get a refund on them.
When she contacted me for help, I reached out to both American Airlines and British Airways for assistance.
American Airlines reviewed the details of the complaint and told me the passenger should have arrived at the airport earlier, but could not explain why George had been charged so much money to change to a later departure. American Airlines added that any refund would have to come from British Airways.
That’s because although her trip began on American Airlines, she purchased her tickets on British Airways, its codeshare partner. But American Airlines doesn’t collect the airfare — it only acts as an agent for British Airways.
I also reached out to British Airways and explained how George feels she missed her flight due to the American Airlines’ agent’s mishandling of her power scooter and should not have been charged an additional fareto fly to Brussels, in particular where she ended up on the same international flights.
And here’s where the codeshare games begin: British Airways initially said it had no information about what happened in Indianapolis to cause George to miss her flights. Then, once I turned over information provided by American Airlines over the course of a few exchanges, it began issuing refunds.
First, British Airways issued a refund for the $500 change fee to alleviate any “poor impression” George may have about the airline. A few weeks later, it refunded $7,000 for the unused flights which George didn’t use to return from Europe. I’ve also asked British Airways to refund the $4,300 originally paid for the round-trip that was never flown, and await the airline’s response.
While it’s true that many electric wheelchair and scooter batteries are flammable and require special care in the cargo hold, George’s particular scooter falls into an exempt category. She shouldn’t have had to educate an airline agent on DOT regulations.
George purchased her scooter after a great deal of research, knowing that this battery is safe for stowing on planes within its compartment. This type of scooter design allows the user to fold it up with the touch of a button, making it perfect for travel. Of course, all of this is irrelevant when airline agents remove the battery, which makes folding the device a demanding physical challenge.
The American Airlines agent’s treatment of the scooter battery was probably rendered out of an abundance of caution. And all passengers with electric scooters or wheelchairs should allow plenty of time to have equipment safely checked in the cargo hold.
Totally inexcusable, however, is the airlines’ codeshare ping-pong that followed.
Codesharing is the marketing agreement between airlines that allows one carrier to sell seats on another carrier using its designator code. British Airways sold the seat on the flight between Indianapolis and Chicago, although it was actually operated by American Airlines.
But when it came time to do anything beyond a simple check in and boarding, the American Airlines agent couldn’t help. American Airlines’ inability to make a straightforward reservation change resulted in George missing her flight. When the agent couldn’t help, she dumped the passenger on a British Airways phone agent, who appears to have charged George for a full-fare, last minute international ticket. And when it came time to processing a refund request — again — the codeshare partners plead ignorance, all at the passenger’s cost.
George, an attorney, is happy to have some of her money back, but laments the lack of education among airline employees about travel with wheelchairs and scooters. “I travel a lot, and the issue is not the battery, but the different interpretations of the same regulations by each airline,” George explains. “During my travels abroad, one airline kept my battery and let me keep the scooter, while another ran in circles trying to figure out what to do. It doesn’t matter if I print out the regulations and carry them with me. No matter what I say, my input is not considered.”
Will British Airways do what American Airlines couldn’t do, and fix the situation? We are still in contact with British Airways on George’s refund request and will update this story when we have news to report.