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My American Airlines Hong Kong Fare Mix-up: What Should I Do?

by on July 25, 2011 · 49 comments

in American

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Last week when I was in Mauritius, I heard about a good deal on a first class fare from Hong Kong to many cities in the US. When I priced it out for my dates HKG-JFK it came to $3,757.90, which to me is not an insignificant amount of money. I thought about it because the miles earned don’t really help me towards elite status since I’m a Delta flyer, but I’ve always heard great things about Cathay Pacific First Class, so I decided to go for it. Since the fare is for travel originating in Hong Kong, I figured I’d use some of my British Airways miles to get me there and home at the end of the paid trip. (FYI: I did not post this deal on the blog, because it was pulled by the time I verified it).

My confirmed First class ticket on Cathay Pacific

Setting the Plan in Motion

So, since the fare originated in HKG, in order to get there and back, I’d be taking two trips to Asia – one in November and one over New Year’s.

JFK-HKG using miles sometime in early November
HKG-JFK first leg of this discount fare at the end of November
JFK-HKG last leg of this discount fare at the end of December
Asia-JFK using BA miles sometime in early/mid January

I secured a room at the W Hong Kong for New Years (refundable) and I started to plan out both of my trips. I haven’t spent a lot of time in Asia, so I was happy this fare was the catalyst to get me thinking about it.

I bought the ticket on aa.com on July 13 and received an email from AA confirming and the corresponding charge went through on my Platinum American Express card (though I really wished I had a Premier Rewards Gold card to get the 3x Amex points on airfare!

The Snag

However, 9 days later, on July 22, 2011 I got the following email from American stating that I had actually purchased an economy class fare and that they made an error.

Dear Points Guy:

Due to an inadvertent coding error for a brief time on July 12 and 13, your recent
purchase of First Class travel between the Hong Kong and the U.S. was priced at the
Economy Class fare.  This service is marketed by American Airlines with an AA* flight
number and is operated by our codeshare partner Cathay Pacific.

We sincerely regret our error, but you will not be able to travel in First or Business
Class on Cathay Pacific using the ticket you purchased at the Coach fare.  However, in
order to provide you with alternative arrangements to best accommodate your travel
needs, we are offering you the travel options listed below, which apply to your own
ticket(s) plus any traveling companions in the same booking record.

-You may be re-routed between Hong Kong and the U.S. via Tokyo/Shanghai, with
travel in Business Class on Cathay Pacific between Tokyo/Shanghai and Hong Kong
and in First Class on American Airlines between Tokyo/Shanghai and the U.S. at
no additional charge.

-You may travel in Economy Class on Cathay Pacific’s Hong Kong – U.S. flights on
the date(s) you are ticketed at the price you paid.

-You may cancel your itinerary for a full refund to the credit card you used to
purchase the ticket(s).

We will also reimburse customers who mail in receipts showing travel-related expenses
incurred from reliance on the erroneous fare, such as fees for canceling other
flights, hotels, and rental cars.  To do this, log on to www.AA.com/customerrelations
for information on how to write to Customer Relations.

We have presented our offer to the Aviation Enforcement Office at the U.S. Department
of Transportation.  The offer has been reviewed by DOT s enforcement staff and is in
line with the agency s acceptance of past responses by other carriers that have
made pricing errors.

While you may have previously understood from American Airlines or Cathay Pacific that
your ticket would be honored in the First or Business Class cabin, this email
supersedes any prior discussions.

Please contact American Airlines at 800-736-6344 if calling from the U.S. for calls in
the U.S.  If calling from outside the U.S, contact an AT&T operator to be connected to
the 800 number.  When you reach one of our agents, make reference to your six
character AA Record Locator(s).

If we do not hear from you with your preferred option by Monday, August 1, we will
cancel your itinerary and refund the ticket price to your credit card.

Again, we regret this fare filing error, and appreciate your understanding to help us
best accommodate you and meet your travel needs on American Airlines.

My (Horrible) Options

So I’m a little bit bummed about the options. I recently flew American Airlines International First Class and it was a joke. While the seat was big, everything else was pretty bad – you can read my whole report here. I would never pay first or even business class prices to fly this product. Also, connecting through Shanghai or Tokyo will add a considerable amount of time to the trip, so that option doesn’t really appeal to me.

Flying Cathay Pacific coach is a ridiculous option. My exact trip would only cost $3,136 in coach, so them offering to keep my reservation in coach is a huge rip-off and would cost me $621. This option is not good, either.

The third option is to get a refund. I always had that option because it was a fully refundable fare, so I’m not too enthused here, either.

The first option is probably the best bet, but frankly American has a poor product and I’d rather use miles to fly a better carrier. For example, $3,757 right now could get me roughly 150,000 American Express Membership Rewards points if I purchase them directly from Amex at 2.5 cents a piece (which they allow up to 500,000 per year), which until July 31 can be converted into British Airways miles at a 50% bonus, yielding me a grand total of 225,000 British Airways miles. I can use 150,000 BA miles to fly Cathay First class JFK-HKG and add in another city in Asia after my Hong Kong stopover. They also allow one-way awards, so I can fly into one city and home from another with stops in Hong Kong both ways. Granted, finding award seats can be tricky, but I’m only one person and my dates are flexible (and I am an expert on booking awards), so I’m sure I could figure it out.

So overall, I’ll probably walk away from this if they actually won’t let me fly Cathay First (since that’s what I bought), but I think American should have sweetened their deal a little bit more – maybe with 20k miles or a $200 voucher saying, “Sorry we messed up and wasted your time thinking you actually had a ticket booked.” A couple years ago they accidentally sold $1,400 First class Qantas fares to Sydney, which I also snagged, and I ended up walking away with $600 in vouchers per ticket purchased, which I thought was fair. They were calling me every day multiple times a day trying to get me to cancel the trip, so I felt that a little bit of compensation was warranted considering the hassle I went through.

However, I’m most curious to hear your thoughts on this situation. Should AA honor a reservation that was ticketed and confirmed, just like we have to honor itineraries we book (and pay crazy change fees when we change our minds?). Or was there offer of re-routing on AA sufficient?

What would you do if you were me?

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • JohnnieD

    It never ceases to amaze me that when the airlines make a ‘mistake’, they can weasel out of honoring it. When I make a ‘mistake’, (like your employer cancels your vacation and it will ‘cost’ $600 additional dollars to change the tickets), well tough.. those are the rules………

  • http://twitter.com/MoSchnitz Moshe Billet

    Outrageous. They should suck it up. They can take some of those extra earnings from raising fare prices when the FAA taxes expired and honor the ticket.

  • Fkfdkdjjdjd

    I would post on flyertalk and see if u are eligible for any other compensation.

    They pissed on your rug and it tied the room together.

  • GA

    Honoring a mistake goes a long way in customer appreciation. While in the contract of carriage, there is probably wording allowing them to do so, they should just say “mea culpa” and be done with it. It begs to question if the airline wasn’t losing so much money would the attitude change?

    More interestingly though, is that they will refund any travel related expenses based on the fare.

  • Dave

    If you had bought the JFK-HKG ticket for $375.79 (instead of $3757), then they would be entitled to cancel it, as most people would have recognized that as an error. This is $3757, different story. I think they should have honored it. If they don’t, compensation is in order, not just a refund. As of DOT, in my view, they are of no help – they are pro-airline, not consumer.

  • Fkfdkdjjdjd

    Tell the hotel to charge you $10k fee for cancelling and submit it for reimbursement.

    Of course then AA will tell u ‘just kidding’ about picking up the fee.

  • Supon

    I will just take option 3. No need to give them business there. They should have honor your original purchase because it was their error. I flew to Asia 2-3 times a year and $3000+ was approx. what I paid for business class. You can fly to Asia with Delta for approx $3000 (business class) if you have systemwide upgrade certificates (and I’m assuming that you do!)
    best,
    Supon

  • Troy

    Hi Brian,

    Thank you for posting about this. I am in a similar situation – I have refundable reservations made so it is not that I will lose any money in case I cancel this trip, but I did spend a significant amount of time making plans and coordinating with my work schedule, so American’s cavalier attitude really tees me off here. To top it, they were downright rude on the phone and sounded like they were trying to do us a favor by giving us these (not so great) options.

    I am glad you are giving this some publicity – I think AA feels they can trod on the little guy but your blog is a powerful medium and I hope this message reaches them loud and clear!

    - Troy

  • Troy

    Unfortunately, the discussion on FlyerTalk has been taken over by a bunch of AA corporate shills who claim AA is doing us a favor by “honoring” the fare and letting us fly AA F. Poppycock!

  • Tim

    I’d fight it. You have in writing what you bought and paid for. Isn’t an air ticket a “contract” between the airline and you?

  • Tim

    I’d fight it. You have in writing what you bought and paid for. Isn’t an air ticket a “contract” between the airline and you?

  • Taylor

    I agree with Dave below. If it was a giant fare difference (like you paid $390 instead of $3900) then I would believe that AA is entitled to not let you travel in business class, because, clearly they would lose a large amount of money.

    None of these are good options IMO, but I do not think AA is being unreasonable with their first option (from a purely devil’s advocate point of view). If you look at it their way, you’re getting their highest class of service for what they claim is an Economy price. Even though that comparatively their F product is awful, AA is certainly not going to admit that.

    I do believe, however, that they should offer some sort of additional compensation if you decide to completely refund the flight, especially given that it is a fully refundable fare anyway. AA screwed something up, so now they need to make it a worthwhile deal for the consumer so that everyone can (maybe) come out a little happier.

  • Bummer

    AA is a business looking to minimize their cost so I understand their options listed. I would have more of a gripe with the AEO at the DOT. It sounds like they need a knowledgeable frequent flyer / travel hacker working to determine equitable options offered by the airline companies!
    Unfortunately as long as we have lobbyists influencing politicians companies will get away will pricing error cancelations and lowball offers. Work a little to get a voucher but cancel the flight. I am sure you will find a better use of your time/money in the months to come.

  • http://www.sitinfirst.com NYBanker

    I’m highly confident you won’t win a fight on this one.

    From their email, “We have presented our offer to the Aviation Enforcement Office at the U.S. Department
    of Transportation. The offer has been reviewed by DOT s enforcement staff and is in
    line with the agency s acceptance of past responses by other carriers that have
    made pricing errors.”

    The subtleties between CX F and AA F, though significant to folks like us, will be lost on the DOT.

    If you care about AA EQP (which I don’t think you do), the routing through China will actually offer a bunch of extra points versus the original routings. You could post your points from flying this journey to your BA account, which are miles I do think you care about. These four flights (HKG-PVG-JFK, return) will net you >20k miles and 440 Tier Points.

  • Gene

    American’s handling of this situation is pathetic. Offering some sort of compensation is a no brainier. After all, THEY screwed up, not the buyers of these tickets. I hope someone successfully sues American Airlines over this issue.

  • Anonymous

    If your intent was to take this trip because the travel options (First Class Cathay) were optimum for the price, now they are not. So your original intent is now not being met – and their options are something someone put together to make their PR on the error sound good to a less seasoned traveller.
    You travel too much to haggle with this one – get a refund and walk away. I agree it’s interesting that they won’t pay Cathay the diff in the fare mistake (which is obviously the problem here) but they will pay a Consumer’s expenses (it always boils down to the accounting and how to book the entry).
    Like the gal said in “The Social Network” – this is a parking ticket. Walk away.

  • A. S.

    Frankly, I think AA’s response is reasonable. Mistakes happen, and they’ve given you options that minimize their liability but also allow you to take the trip if you prefer.

    Personally, I’d just get a refund. AA’s First isn’t worth that much cash — as you already said — and that price is obviously insane to fly CX coach.

    There are many vultures out there who wait for mistakes in order to make a quick “vengeful” buck, but I’ve followed your blog for quite some time and you seem like a nice guy who isn’t like that. So just walk away and look for your next big adventure! Imagine it were you who made a mistake: would you be happy if somebody, knowing you made a mistake, asked you for a payback to forgive you? Besides, even if you had incurred out-of-pocket expenses, they’ve offered to cover those. Take the good karma, TPG! Trust me when I tell you that you’ll get your “reward” later, when you least expect it. :)

  • Elai1231

    I think there’s negotiation room there. So instead of just taking one of the options, you can counter offer. Doesn’t hurt to ask.

  • Flyer

    At minimum, they should off up points or voucher compensation. This story makes me less likely to fly AA.

  • Captainmoon

    I am aggressive and unforgiving in pursuing enforcement of fares and deals with hotels and airlines. It is just proper business practice, and these companies are ruthless when we are the ones who made a booking mistake. Besides, travel plotting takes sweat equity and even for a “discount,” that’s a lot of money!

    I would hold out and try to negotiate…..

    (Ps between this and the raising fares to eliminate the tax discount, I will be avoiding aa from now on and sticking with delta and usair).

  • Flyer

    A.S. PITT_Flyer, NYBanker, and Bummer sound like they work for the AA damage control department.

    Wake up AA. People that grab mistakes fares and utilize frequent flyer strategies also spend a lot on travel. Sending people out to defend a bad corporate actions alienates an important customer group.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the feedback everyone! I just called AA and let them know I wasn’t happy with any of the options and the rep told me I’d automatically be switched to coach on August 1. I told him I wasn’t happy with that and to note it. He told me to email customer affairs, which is funny because the email from customer affairs told me to call that number.

    I’ll certainly keep you all updated on how this plays out!

  • Anonymous

    Just got a call from AA- instead of bumping me into refundable coach like I was just told, they are going to cancel my ticket on August 1. Seems like one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing…not surprising, I guess.

  • DcTexan

    One more reason that, despite being a nationalistic Texan, I traded in my DFW-based AA elite status for Delta after 15 years of customer service decline with American. Sorry to see little has changed at AA.

  • Dewhit6959

    Negate all the problem and possible future problems and get your money back. You have turned the tables on us Brian ! You are the one who is supposed to render a solution to a problem like this!

  • bluto

    Propose this to them: they keep the cash, you decline the flights and get AA miles instead. Maybe 300,000 miles for your $3,757. This is less than what AA sells miles for but they might be willing to do it because of how they internally account for the cost of miles. With 300k miles, I am sure you can book alternative arrangements that are better than the flight options they’ve offered. Maybe 300k isn’t the right number but I think there is some figure that would satisfy both sides.

  • John

    I think AA response is fair. The price for a 1st class Cathay ticket is probably over $12,000.

    Brian, why didn’t you just buy the ticket buying the BA miles from Amex and then getting a 50% BA transfer bonus? It would have been cheaper than the $3700 mistake fair you purchased.

  • Anonymous

    I always had that option because it was a fully refundable fare. I’m not stressing about this at all- I’m more interested in hearing what my sage readers have to say :-)

  • Dewhit6959

    I will second your comments Troy. I don’t see the logic in someone answering my questions in a specific and dedicated airline forum that the points program is “useless” in their opinion and that their particular airline is superior.

  • JW

    Get a refund and go later on your terms. Why go now anyway? That’s what I would do. You can get a better deal than that later.

  • Heather

    They should have honoured it. It was their mistake. Flying AA over to Asia has been horrible for me. So I’d cancel it and then write up a ‘nice’ report on them and post it around.

  • MichaelP

    AA charges us for cancelling a booking and they get away with it for free, how convenient!

  • Anonymous

    I agree- the Flyertalk threads on Good Deal airfares always derail. Way too many armchair QB airline apologists for me to waste my time. All productive conversations are happening in private forums

  • David

    Brian, I’d suggest you read this article — http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/24/your-money/ralph-nader-and-the-airline-refund-the-haggler.html — and then take Nader’s tact of dropping the words, “small claims court” to AA. I wouldn’t be surprised if they decide to honor the mistake they themselves made.

  • David

    Brian, I’d suggest you read this article — http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/24/your-money/ralph-nader-and-the-airline-refund-the-haggler.html — and then take Nader’s tact of dropping the words, “small claims court” to AA. I wouldn’t be surprised if they decide to honor the mistake they themselves made.

  • Ben

    You could probably go to war with them over it, but it would not be good for your career as a paid travel journalist. Whacking them on a large pricing error on a codeshare is not going to get you any favors from them. Likely they pay out cash to CX for those flights, so they can’t just give them away.

  • RakSiam

    well, the FT thread on this is certainly a long one! personally I think I would just cancel and get the money back.

    I think they proved with the QF snafu that they don’t have to live up to their contract. Although, in this case I understand it booked into an economy fare class…which a savvy traveler such as yourself should probably have known wouldn’t really entitle you to an F class seat.

  • Anonymous

    Per the cabin code and booking codes in the screenshot in the post, both stated First. I don’t think you need to be a savvy traveler to realize the itinerary booked was in first class and no other.

  • RakSiam

    sorry, then I stand corrected. I thought I read on the other thread that it booked into W class.

    Then you should take them to court.

  • abcx

    It’s a $3500 F fare. This is not even one of those cases where this was an obvious mistake. I don’t buy F fares and this didn’t seem extraordinary to me. I don’t even know why you are considering walking away from it. Fight it. Threaten to sue if they don’t budge (it’s worked before – on the QF F fare that A also bungled up). Seriously. What do you the think the airline does in such a situation if you make a mistake? As a travel blogger, it’s your duty to stand up for the small guy. Ask to fly if you really want or some reasonable compensation (>$1000 in AA vouhers or >100k miles).

    Their gall is unbelievable. If the customer makes a mistake, it’s the customer’s problem. Now if the f***ing airline makes a mistake, it’s still the customer’s problem? And they’re offering you a $3k Y ticket to HKG as if they are doing you a favor? Ridiculous. I’m telling you – threaten to sue. They do NOT want this going to the courts. A judge will laugh them out.
    It doesn’t matter what the DoT says. Contract law is contract law especially when the mistake is not obvious. And 9 days to catch a ‘mistake’ even though they pulled the fare? Can I claim a mistake after 9 days next time I book tickets on AA and want to change dates?

    In such a situation, I would almost go to the trouble of getting backdated receipts just to stiff AA since they are acting so high and mighty. (Getting backdated receipts in Asia is a joke.)

  • http://newformula.org newformula

    Life is too short to fret about stuff like this. Take the refund, move on, find a new trip to plan and enjoy.

  • PJ

    Did you let out the huge tax and fuel surcharge? Last time i priced out coach on CX back to far east, the surcharges from BA did make AA a big sweetheart :)

  • Reichen

    I can’t believe that there is any disagreement on this. You bought and paid for a ticket at the advertised price and you deserve to fly in First. There are no “do-0vers” in this world, particularly not after nine days. Even when you buy a house you only get three days for your buyers remorse clause to kick in – after that it’s yours! AA has no legal right to change the terms other than pure gutsy balls on their part. Either they deliver as promised or I would take them to court. No way they can win this one unless you let them. There were no tricks involved in this purchase – it was straight up legal. I would have bought that ticket if I had seen it and would not have thought it was an error at $3757. Trying to offer you alternatives is just obfuscation on their part. Go after them – Make us proud.

  • DC

    Absolutely with you on this. Dont think they have much of a case and even if they did, it would cost them more to send a litigator to small claims court to defend it than to just settle with you. If you want to fly Cathay first, fight them.

  • Curious George
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  • Guest

    Yeah, getting rerouted with AA F via Tokyo or China doesn’t seem to be that bad. I haven’t flown AA F to Asia, but the trip reports that I’ve seen seem to be decent at least. At 3000+ USD, you would be struggling to find a business class seat actually!

    I would try to convince them that, ok, you’re accepting their error and want to work with them, but that you would like to earn miles as F for the whole trip. That will give you Plat easily

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