American Airlines Gets A Harsh Penalty For Fees

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While some argue that fees are good for passengers, I still feel like having a fee for everything creates an adversarial relationship between airlines and their customers.  In the battle of passengers versus the airlines and their fees, the passengers scored a victory today as the Department of Transportation issued a $90,000 fine against American Airlines. Apparently, when American bumped passengers and gave them vouchers, they would then charge their customers a booking fee to redeem them at the ticket counter.  A $200 voucher would really be worth only $170.  They could redeem them by telephone without a fee, but they would have to mail their tickets in three weeks early.  There is no way to redeem the vouchers online.  Welcome to 1995!

Of course, it is not just these outrageous policies that drew the fine, but the fact that American was, of course, not informing anyone of these policies when they gave them the vouchers.  This move is part of an increasing pattern of the DOT actually standing up for customer rights lately.   By lately, I mean since something happened around January 20th, 2009.

What Do You Do With These Vouchers

Airlines love to hand out vouchers whenever they screw their passengers for some reason.  It is not just bumps, but canceled flights, lost luggage, and other customer service failures.   The vouchers sound great, but they purposely make redeeming them as difficult as possible.   It is rare to see an airline accept them on their web site.  Typically, they require both a phone call and the mailing of the vouchers.  Even going to the airport, as was the case with the American vouchers, can result in a fee that negates a significant amount of the value you were promised.

American got fined because these vouchers were part of a federally mandated compensation for being bumped.   It is not clear whether or not American or if any other carriers are required to eliminate these fees on vouchers received for other reasons.

One of my real pet peeves, beyond airline fees in general, is ticketing fees that must be incurred in order to use a voucher.   As far as I am concerned, this is outright fraud.  If you are trying to redeem one of these vouchers, you should demand that the fees be waived.  Your chances of success are greater if you are an elite member of the carrier’s frequent flier program.  Before you pay for any kind of ticketing fees when using a voucher, ask if it is possible to redeem the voucher some other way without a fee.  The chances are that you will have the choice of mailing the voucher in, using the web site, or visiting an airport ticket counter.   One of these options should be fee free.   You should then ask for your reservation to be held while you redeem your voucher.

If you have to mail the ticket in, you should make a photocopy of the voucher and  at least use delivery confirmation from the post office or another method of tracking.

Finally, I have had the experience of having had a separate ticketing charge added to my reservation without being informed.  As with any unauthorized charge to my credit card, I demanded an immediate reimbursement and threatened a chargeback.   I was promptly refunded the fee.

You likely got the voucher because your airline screwed up in some way.  Don’t let the airlines beat you up with fees when you redeem a voucher.  Take the time to figure out how to redeem it fee free, and don’t give them any slack if they don’t make it easy.

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