There was some minor uproar over the weekend when it was revealed that American had adjusted its domestic contract of carriage — or conditions of carriage, as the airline calls it — to remove some consumer protections that seemed to be baked in. The response was merciless, and I had one person even call for American to get the Cranky Jackass award. The thing is… I’m glad American made this change, because it conflicted with what the airline actually did in practice. This should have been fixed long ago.
The reality is that the Contract of Carriage (CoC) is meant to be a baseline document showing what you are entitled to when you buy a ticket from an airline. Policies may go above and beyond what you’ll find in the CoC, but that’s not required. For that reason, the CoC should be very clear in what it provides at the lowest level.
The changes that were made recently effectively matched the CoC up with American’s policies that were already in place. In other words, there was ambiguity in the CoC wording, and there were ways for people to try to take advantage of the situation to get more than American would allow. That just ends up in fights and is bad for everyone. Now, that ambiguity is gone. Good.
You can follow along with the airline’s conditions of carriage here. The list of complaints from JT Genter, who first publicized the change, is as follows:
AA disclaims any liability when “we (or our partners) cancel a flight or route”
American already had a list of things that it was not liable for in the CoC. Specifically, it said it is not liable if:
- We’re late or you don’t make your connection
- We change the schedule of any flight
- There are special, incidental or consequential damages because of these changes
- Your checked baggage is late (except as required by statute, regulation, or Convention)
And what this means it that you can’t go and sue American because you missed an important meeting or something like that. American has just clarified that it’s not just schedule changes and missed connections but also canceled flights. American isn’t alone in this.
Delta, for example, says “Delta will not be liable under any circumstances for any special, incidental or consequential damages arising from the foregoing.” United says “Except to the extent provided in this Rule, UA shall not be liable for failing to operate any flight according to schedule, or for any change in flight schedule, with or without notice to the passenger.”
This was just poor wording before for not including canceled flights. It created a potential loophole for someone to try and exploit.
If AA “or our airline partner fails to operate or delays your arrival more than 4 hours, our sole obligation is to refund the remaining ticket value and any optional fees according to our involuntary refunds policy.” So, AA may strand you on the day of travel.
Note that this verbiage was added and there was no verbiage there before. So what this does is just link this with the refund rule and make it easier for passengers to clearly understand what American’s obligation is. It may not have to offer you alternate transportation, but it will. You may not like it, and if you turn it down, you can get a refund. Remember that American doesn’t want to give you a refund. It would much rather put you on a later flight and keep your money. But ultimately you do have the option to get your money back if you meet this requirements.
When there’s a flight cancellation or delay that causes a missed connection, AA will no longer “rebook you on the next flight with available seats”. Instead, you’ll have to wait to be rebooked “on the next American Airlines or American partner flight with available seats”
This is also just aligning with policy — and reality — though it’s admittedly rather strange since “partner flight” does not appear to be defined. Let’s use an example. Pretend you were flying American from LA to Vegas and your flight canceled. The next flight is on Spirit. The two airlines have no relationship, but the way the CoC was worded, you’d think American would have to go and buy you a ticket out of pocket on Spirit because it’s the next available flight.
Not only is that not policy, but it’s silly to think that it should be. Assuming the delay is long enough, you’d have the right to get your money back and buy a new ticket on another airline. What people were doing, I suspect, is just buying a ticket on Spirit and then demanding American send reimbursement because of what’s in the CoC. Now that clearly isn’t allowed.
If AA strands you somewhere *and it’s their fault*, AA will only cover the cost of a hotel if it’s an approved hotel or you get “written authorization from American Airlines”. So, make sure to stay in the (long) airport line to get a hotel when AA strands you.
You can see where this probably came from. American used to say it would cover the cost of an approved hotel. What’s an approved hotel? That’s pretty vague. So what people would do is not want to either wait in line or get the hotel voucher email (as American has been offering to speed up the process) and just book a fancy hotel and then tell American to pay for it. That’s a distortion of what should be happening here.
Even worse, AA then emphasizes in the next section that if “you book your own arrangements without written authorization from American Airlines, you’re responsible to pay for your hotel, meals and other expenses”.
Right, because you’ll go and book some Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton and then demand reimbursement. American should have control over this process to avoid runaway costs.
In the end, all of these changes simply clarify the CoC to match policy that’s already in place. If there’s anything disturbing about the changes, it’s that American took so long to actually make them. I wonder how many legal tussles have happened over the last few years as American fought against the arbitrary interpretation of the CoC by passengers looking to take advantage of poorly-worded paragraphs. Now the ambiguity is gone.