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American Airlines Cancels Passenger's Return Ticket, Has No Record of Him Boarding Outbound Flight

Feb. 22, 2019
7 min read
American Airlines Cancels Passenger's Return Ticket, Has No Record of Him Boarding Outbound Flight
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Steven Homen found himself in a rather bizarre situation this past weekend. Upon disembarking from a flight from LA to San Jose, CA, Homen received a notification from American Airlines that the return leg of the flight had been canceled. The reason? American Airlines claimed that Homen had failed to board the first leg of his itinerary, therefore, voiding his ticket.

Homen had booked the round-trip ticket on AA from Los Angeles (LAX) to San Jose (SJC), CA, an itinerary which featured just two nonstop flights: an outbound leg and a return leg. According to Homen, he showed up to LAX, made his way through security without issue, and boarded his flight to San Jose. "When I scanned it, I watched it turn green," Homen told ABC 7 Chicago regarding his boarding pass.

Homen even took video from inside the aircraft upon arrival. In the video, the terminal of San Jose International Airport is clearly visible as an American Eagle EMB-175 lands at the airport.

Homen says that he chatted with a pilot as he took a shuttle from LAX's Terminal 5 to the American Airlines terminal from which his flight would depart. He also says that he had "one cream and one sugar" with his coffee during the flight. As is standard protocol on American Eagle flights, the flight crew allegedly took one last headcount prior to closing the doors during which Homen would have been included in that headcount.

However, upon arrival in San Jose, Homen was shocked to discover that American Airlines had canceled his return leg back to Los Angeles, and that the airline didn't have "any trace of [him] whatsoever." At the time unable to refute the claim that he had not completed the first leg of his flight, Homen ended up buying a new $200 return ticket.

The Points Guy reached out to American Airlines for insight into Homen's case and received the following statement:

"American is aware of a technical issue which resulted in Mr. Homen’s return ticket being canceled. Although this is an extremely rare occurrence, we take all issues that impact our customers very seriously and our team is working to determine the cause."

The AA spokesperson also confirmed that the additional ticket Homen was required to purchase was refunded back to him.

So, how could a major airline like American Airlines just lose a passenger? With the process of check-in, security screening, boarding,and a final headcount, how did Homen slip through the cracks? And what can passengers do to protect themselves?

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How Can An Airline Lose Track of a Passenger?

The Points Guy reached out to Jeffrey Price, a professor in the Department of Aviation and Aerospace at Metropolitan State University in Denver, CO, to find out how an airline could lose track of a passenger mid-transit. Price noted that it's not entirely uncommon.

"Believe it or not it’s happened to me. It was on a Frontier Airlines flight several years ago, from Denver to Reagan airport. When I went to the ticket counter to check-in for the return flight to Denver, they said they had no indication I’d ever flown on the original flight. They wouldn’t believe me until I pulled my ticket stub out, which I’d still had from the week before. Then they were baffled but agreed I had been on the flight, so they booked me on the one I was supposed to be on."

Price notes that, "It’s probably more common than most people realize," explaining the reason Homen's reservation was lost was "likely just a computer error." Computer errors as a result of antiquated technology are usually the cause of incidents like this. While technology in commercial aviation has certainly come a long way, ticketing and reservations systems haven't caught quite as fast. These dated systems are part of the reason airlines experience outages every so often. The antiquated technology used by major airlines has even raised concerns about vulnerability to cyber attacks.

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 02: Passengers check-in for flights with United Airlines at O'Hare Airport on June 2, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. United travelers experienced widespread delays this morning after the airline was forced to ground flights after experiencing computer problems. The issue coincided with reports of bomb threats being made against several airlines, including a United. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Passengers wait at a United Airlines ticket counter at Chicago-O'Hare Airport after a computer outage in 2017 (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Cyber attacks aside, Price doesn't believe there are any security concerns as a result of these lost reservation issues. He noted that since all passengers are first filtered through the Transportation Security Administration's Secure Flight data, passengers on the no-fly list would not be issued a ticket to begin with. Additionally, all passengers on commercial flights are screened at security checkpoints. However, Price did note that since airlines do not check IDs on domestic flights, a person could technically use any ticket once they pass through the screening checkpoint.

While one might assume the airline is liable for a computer glitch, Price went on to explain that an airline's contract of carriage give airlines every possible advantage in situations like this.

So what are airlines required to do should they lose your reservation mid-transit? "Based on the contract of carriage, not much except for maybe the change fee and the cost of the return flight if there was a difference," Price says.

Here's What You Should Do If You Find Yourself In This Situation

With airlines having to take little responsibility for a lost reservation like Homen's, there are a few basic steps that passengers can take to create a more favorable and timely outcome should they find themselves in this situation.

First and foremost, upon checking in for your flight, email a .pdf of your boarding document and receipt to yourself. Even if you print off your boarding pass or have it available on your mobile device, it's a good idea to have an electronic back-up in the case of an unexpected incident. In this case, Homen was able to bring up an email with his boarding document, which provided substantial proof that he had in fact boarded the flight.

If you can't download or email yourself the boarding document, make sure to take a screenshot of your mobile boarding pass from your mobile device. The screenshot will remain unchanged and saved to your phone regardless of what happens on the airline's end.

If by the day of departure, you are unable to prove that you do in fact have a valid reservation or boarding pass, the airline may require you to purchase a new ticket. If you are required to book a new flight, it is crucial to keep multiple copies of your receipt, itinerary and boarding documents if you plan on pursuing compensation from the airline.

While incidents like the one involving Steven Homen and American Airlines could happen to anyone, Price remains hopeful. "In the near future, biometrics may make all of this a moot point. The goal is that your face will become your pass through security and your boarding pass. Then the TSA and the airlines can be pretty certain you are still you when you board."

Featured image by An American Airlines plane heads to the gate at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. Photo by John Gress / Getty Images