Q: My friend and I used our frequent-flier miles to book a flight on American Airlines’ partner airline LATAM Airlines Group S.A. from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, Argentina. That flight, the only one of the day, was canceled due to pilot illness.
Both LATAM and American refused to rebook us on another flight, each claiming that it was the other’s responsibility. Since we were out of the country with limited resources and time, and given that we had to reach our destination that day to make a cruise departure, we were forced to buy out-of-pocket last-minute tickets on a different airline, and we needed to address the issue of compensation when we returned.
Now that that time has come, both airlines are still refusing culpability, leaving us with the bill. Please help us navigate this mess of deniability. – Mark Schlangel, Miami Beach, Fla.
A: Ah, two of my favorite topics: loyalty programs and codesharing. Where to begin?
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Maybe here: LATAM should have found another pilot and gotten you to your destination, as promised. Kind of goes without saying. But after that, this case gets a little murky.
Your airline’s contract of carriage – the legal agreement between you and the airline – doesn’t guarantee an arrival time. In other words, LATAM wasn’t contractually obligated to get you to your destination in time for your cruise. But I think there was an understanding, based on the published flight schedule, that it would fly you there on time, or at least on the same day. And that didn’t happen.
There are two complicating factors. First, the fact that you used your frequent-flier miles for these flights. Airlines generally assign little or no value to your award seats. The seats would fly empty if a loyal frequent flier didn’t claim them, and for internal accounting purposes, the airline considers a “mile” to be worth a penny or less, give or take.
So when a flight gets canceled, you can understand how an airline might be reluctant to put you and your friend in a revenue seat.
LATAM should have, and probably would have, flown you to your destination the next day, even if reluctantly. But that brings us to problem number two: the codesharing. You redeemed your miles on a partner airline, meaning that you are not an LATAM frequent flier but American’s “problem.”
Codesharing can be a real mess, at least for passengers. It allows airlines to collude instead of compete in the marketplace, and it lets them play “pass the buck” with a case like yours. Your entreaties to LATAM and American were brushed off.
This could have been avoided by giving yourself more time to get to your cruise or by booking a flight on an airline that flew to your destination more than once a day. But really, it shouldn’t have been an issue at all – the original flight should have taken off on time.
An appeal to a customer-service executive at one of the airlines might have helped. I list the names and numbers for the executives of American Airlines (http://elliott.org/company-contacts/american-airlines) and LATAM (http://elliott.org/company-contacts/latam-airlines) on my consumer-advocacy site.
With the assistance of the advocates on my help forum (http://forum.elliott.org), you found the right people at both airlines. And the resolution to your case is one of the most interesting ones in a while. American refunded your miles for the ticket and added 10,000 bonus miles “for the inconvenience.”
Your friend tweeted LATAM and included a video of the passengers on your flight “rioting” (your words). LATAM agreed to refund half of your expenses.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the author of “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler.” You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org, or e-mail him at email@example.com.