AA Clarifies When and How Passengers Will Be Rebooked When Flights Go Awry

Oct 9, 2018

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American Airlines recently issued an internal memo laying out its re-accommodation policy. Since then, there’s been some fury about how AA is making it harder for passengers to be rebooked on other airlines. However, the situation isn’t as drastic as it’s been made out to be.

What American Airlines has done in the past couple of weeks is clarify its policy about rebooking passengers when there are irregular operations. From speaking with American Airlines agents, this policy is meant to document what agents were supposed to be doing already. The problem was that the policy wasn’t explicit stated, so it was being inconsistently applied by agents. Some agents were much more restrictive than necessary while others were far too lenient.

So yes, if you’ve been able to leverage a 30-minute maintenance delay to be rebooked on Delta when booked in American Airlines economy as a non-elite, that’s not going to happen anymore — unless there’s an truly extraordinary situation. Instead, here’s when and how American Airlines we re-accommodate you when there are delays and cancellations.

Protecting Top-Tier Elites and Ultra-Premium Passengers

Any business needs to keep its best customers happy to be successful. American Airlines is no different. When there’s a flight cancellation or delay, American Airlines agents are instructed to rebook its most-loyal passengers on the fastest possible itinerary to the final destination.

In doing so, agents are instructed to prioritize American Airlines flights first, AA’s closest business partners (British Airways, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines) second, Oneworld partners (i.e. Cathay Pacific, Qantas) third, non-alliance codeshare partners (i.e. Alaska, Hawaiian) fourth and then finally on other airlines (i.e. Delta, United).

To be eligible for this treatment, you’re going to need to be an upper-to-top-tier American Airlines elite (Platinum Pro, Executive Platinum or Concierge Key), flying in Flagship First Class (only found on AA’s A321T and AA’s 777-300ER), a Oneworld Emerald or a companion of one of these passengers booked on the same reservation.

Taking Care of Mid-Tier Elites and Premium Passengers

The next tier of re-accommodation get the same treatment as the top-tier passengers — with one important exception. This level covers mid-to-low-tier American Airlines elites (Gold, Platinum), Oneworld mid-to-low-tier elites (Ruby, Sapphire), business class and domestic first-class passengers, as well as companions of these travelers booked in the same reservation.

Agents are able to rebook these passengers on other American Airlines, joint business partners (British Airways, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines), Oneworld and codeshare partners flights. However, agents are instructed not to book these passengers on other airlines — such as Delta or United — unless an exception needs to be made (see below) or the delay would be more than five hours. Five hours is a long time, but at least this means that you shouldn’t be stranded overnight.

Exceptions

The above policies cover everyone but non-elite passengers flying in economy. The general rule is that these non-elite, non-premium passengers won’t be re-accommodated on competitor airlines, but may be rebooked on alliance and codeshare partners. However, the policy lists a number of exceptions to the general policy.

Explicit exceptions are made for the following passengers: unaccompanied minors, passengers with disabilities and US military service members traveling on orders.

In addition, situational exceptions will be made for passengers traveling for family emergencies (i.e. funerals, weddings) or time-critical vacation plans (i.e. needing to make a cruise ship departure) and when AA can avoid paying compensation under EC 261/2004 by rebooking a passenger on a competitor airline.

In addition, agents have the flexibility to make exceptions beyond these explicitly-listed exceptions when needed. And, that’s the crux of this policy clarification. Before now, reservations and airport agents didn’t have this explicit policy as a starting point and were rebooking passengers when they thought it was appropriate. With this new policy in place, AA agents are still able to make a judgement call and rebook when necessary, but there should be more consistency in how passengers are re-accommodated.

Why This Policy Makes Sense

Believe me, I’m one of the first to call out American Airlines when it’s behaving badly. However, I personally find this AA policy to be fair and smart business. The airline is making sure to do whatever is needed to take care of its top customers — and other premium passengers, to a lesser degree. Meanwhile, passengers are focused on price, so airlines are having to slash economy fares to compete on price.

Historically, airlines had far fewer flights, fewer partners and more maintenance issues. Joint ventures between international airlines didn’t exist until 1992, and the first of the three major airline alliances wasn’t founded until 1997. So, when airlines had issues, they could only rely on interline agreements to rebook passengers on competitor airlines. Now, it’s not every airline for itself. Airlines have alliances and business partners to fall back on when something goes wrong, and it makes sense to use these airlines first.

And while ancillary revenue is up, airfares are historically low. When there’s a passenger that bought a basic economy ticket for around the same fare Spirit was charging, it doesn’t make sense for the airline to potentially bear the cost of rebooking the passenger on a full-service carrier if something goes wrong. If the passenger opted for Spirit instead, Spirit certainly isn’t going to be re-accommodating passengers on other airlines — nor is Southwest or Frontier.

And, American Airlines isn’t alone in having a policy like this. Delta and United similarly instruct agents to utilize partners, avoid using competitors and prioritize elites and premium passengers.

I experienced this personally last year when flying United as a non-elite economy passenger. When a typhoon swept through Japan, my United flight was cancelled and United wouldn’t rebook me on any other airlines — even its Japanese partner ANA. The cancellation compounded by full flights meant that we were stuck in Nagoya (NGO) for another four days. Thankfully, my Citi Prestige kicked in $1,000 to cover the costs.

Bottom Line

American Airlines has clarified when and how it’s re-accommodating passengers. Elites and premium cabin passengers are going to get the most options when rebooking. Meanwhile, economy passengers without elite status are going to potentially — but not always — have to wait for the next American Airlines flight option.

However, AA is still allowing its agents to make exceptions to get even the most “basic” (economy) passengers where they need to go if there’s an urgent reason. This policy is generally the industry standard for legacy airlines (like Delta and United) and better than passengers will get on low-cost carriers (like Southwest, Frontier, Spirit).

Featured image by John Gress/Corbis via Getty Images.

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