Rarely do I use this forum to discuss personal issues. Earlier this year, I made an exception to inform readers that an unwelcome medical diagnosis of pancreatic cancer had interrupted my weekly posts. As it happened, my 48 days in the hospital provided a unique perspective on our dysfunctional medical system. So as I gained strength, I wrote about that experience. (A book is in the works.) In any event, I’m pleased to report that my progress and prognosis are good.

The outpouring of sympathy and support has been overwhelming. But it hasn’t been universal. Which takes us to the headline for this post.

American Airlines: “Doing What We Do Best”

Twenty-four hours before the first of what would become my five hospitalizations between February and June, my wife and I were scheduled to fly from Chicago to San Francisco on American Airlines. The University of San Francisco School of Law had invited me to its annual Law Review Symposium for a discussion of my book, The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis.

Blood test results prompted my doctor to send me to the ER — pronto. Instead of boarding a plane, I was boarding a hospital gurney. After several months of procedures and tests, doctors finally located the source of episodic and life-threatening internal bleeding. One long-term consequence of my condition is that I will remain grounded indefinitely — no air travel.

American Airlines: “The New American is Arriving”

Once it became clear that I would not be able to rebook a flight on American during the one-year period required for our non-refundable tickets, I contacted the airline to seek a refund. (As my principal caregiver, my wife can’t use her ticket either. For better or worse, and for penalties associated with non-refundable tickets…)

The ticket value is significant, but not overwhelming ($870.19 each — for a total of $1740.38). Still, it was worth pursuing.

I called American’s preferred customer number because I’ve been a loyal American flyer for decades. The person I reached was pleasant and cooperative. He found our original reservation, provided ticket numbers, and directed me to the American Airlines website. There, I would click on the customer service link and complete a refund request form.

Shortly after submitting the on-line request, I received a response seeking a physician’s letter confirming my medical plight. Within 24 hours, I scanned and emailed my doctor’s letter describing the cancer diagnosis:

“The complications of his illness include intermittent internal bleeding that renders him unable to travel by air for the foreseeable future… His wife is also my patient and his principal caregiver. As a consequence, she likewise will be unable to travel by air for the foreseeable future.”

Two days later, a customer relations person acknowledged receipt of the letter with this ominous note:

“I have forwarded it to personnel in our accounting office. They are the specialists who review such requests. They will do so and be in touch with you directly.”

American Airlines: “Going for Great”

I knew I was in trouble. The “accounting office” was going to make the final decision about the seriousness of my medical condition in deciding whether to permit a $1,740 refund: “They are the specialists.”

In what?

Five weeks later, I received this nameless form response from a “do not reply” email address:

“After reviewing the documentation submitted, it has been determined the request does not meet our exception requirements.”

“[I]t has been determined…” The passive voice covers a multitude of sinners. But it makes you wonder what the “exception requirements” are and who sets them. More precisely, if my situation doesn’t qualify, what does?

The response continued:

“The ticket purchased is non-refundable so we cannot offer a refund, issue a travel voucher, or transfer this ticket to another person. However, the ticket will remain valid in our system for one year from the original date of issue, at which time it will expire and all value will be lost.”

I know. I can never use the ticket. That’s why I sought an exception.

“The unused non-refundable ticket may be applied to future travel as long as all travel is completed prior to the expiration date.”

Anyone who had read the letter from my physician could never have included that sentence.

“The new ticket will be subject to a change fee based on the fare rules, in addition to any difference in fare or fees that may be in effect at the time of travel. We are forwarding your case to our Customer Relations department for consideration of a waiver for the above stated reissue fee that would be assessed to use your ticket for future travel.”

Lucky me! I might get a fee waiver for a ticket that I will never buy. No one who read my doctor’s letter could have written that, either.

“Please allow time for Customer Relations to review your situation and respond to your case before making additional contact.”

In other words, don’t bother us anymore. My wife received the identical message.

Wrong Without a Remedy

Readers may recognize the subheadings in this post. They are American Airlines’ advertising slogans over the years. The last one — “Going for Great” — is the most recent. Based on my experience, it will never get there.

There’s a lesson for anyone contemplating a flight on American Airlines. When you book a nonrefundable ticket, even the prospect of death from an intervening terminal illness that results in grounding you permanently will not qualify as an exception to the airlines’ “no refund” policy.

There’s a larger lesson, too. American Airlines’ handling of my request is emblematic of a larger societal phenomenon: myopic short-termism. When accountants’ incentive structures displace customer service, the culture of an organization follows that lead.

By the way, feel free to pass this along — retweet, post on Facebook, etc. — and to share your thoughts directly with American Airlines’ customer relations. (After clicking here, select TOPIC: Customer Relations; SUBJECT: Complaint; REASON: Other. After that, you’re on your own.)

I’m sure they would love to hear from you.


  1. This just shows that focus solely on the bottom line is bad for both customer and business. One would think that with the Yelp and other review sites, customer treatment would matter, but in some industries, where they have you over a barrel like airlines, you are stuck either way and there is no appreciable difference.

    As a personal injury lawyer, I strive to provide superb service to all my clients. I cannot possibly always succeed, but I certainly have made that my 25 year battle to achieve that level of excellence regularly.

  2. Another example of Customer Service being overtaken by the MBA’s of the world. Which results in reducing the leverage of the customer by merger and monopoly and the result that the only confirmation of success is the immediate P & L statement and payout to the shareholder. Again, I am concerned that the USA will choke on it’s own greed.

  3. You’re fooling yourself if you think any human participated in any of these decisions. A computer looked at your case, made a simple decision to deny your request based on it being a non-refundable ticket and then sent you a canned response. It’s not short term thinking, it’s long term thinking about the cost of pissing off a few people who will not fly with them again anyway vs the benefits of not paying for a customer service department staffed with humans.

    If you want satisfaction you always have to talk to a human.

  4. Christopher Elliot from the Washington Post had an interesting piece on non-refundable tickets and American Airlines that was published back on August 6th. No link, but you can track it down via Google. It seems that all of the airlines (with the exception of Southwest) are pretty strict about this, and any decision to refund a non-refundable ticket has to come from fairly high up. It also sounds like, unless you have someone from a major newspaper going to bat for you, it’s difficult to get in contact with a person who has such authority. In any event, sorry to hear about your experience with American Mr. Harper, but I’m glad to hear about your progress and prognosis.

  5. This is just part of the current culture of both business and law in this country. Right and wrong, innocent until PROVEN GUILTY, compassion for one’s fellow man, no longer have any place in our ‘win at all costs,’ ‘short-term maximum profit’ big business scenarios.
    In fact, your own profession, BIG LAW, is the primary culprit behind such unyielding letter-of-the- law interpretations. Throughout big government, big law, and big corporate institutional rule, there is no room for individual judgments, Employees throughout these big entities are robots with strict rules that require strict adherence or the loss of one’s job. Fear rules.
    One similar situation I have personal knowledge of: An older retired couple put down a $10,000 deposit on an apartment unit, planning to move from their large home when it was finished. Before the apartment building was complete, he suffered a massive heart attack and died. She asked if she could have the deposit back so that she could move closer to her children. The developer chose to return her deposit, then resold the unit for more than $10,000 above what her contract price was. The lawyer for the bank that was financing the project castigated the developer for his compassion in returning the deposit, saying that he just gave away $10,000 of the BANK’S money, and was in violation of the terms of his commercial loan.

  6. Twitter is an effective tool in situations like this. Most corporations have people who monitor their Twitter feeds and references. Bombard them with Tweets linking to your story, and have all your friends (and email network) do the same. Follow and DM senior executives. Somebody who cares about the brand will respond.

  7. I just submitted my complaint to American Airlines. My flight scheduled next week will be my last one on this Airlines if they do not reverse this appeal. Again –well-written – I pride myself at being able to look at all sides –but hard to possibly even imagine what their point of view could be on this one.

  8. Actually if you think about it, not a lot of difference between asking for a discount from a big law firm when the firm wants a 96% realization rate and the attorneys must bill 2,000+ hours per year.

  9. Monopoly. This would not have happened if Eastern, TWA, Pan Am, Continental, Northwest, Braniff, Republic, North Central, Western, Air Midwest, Air Wisconsin, US Air, Peoples, Mohwak,, Air Iowa, Air Illinois were with us.

  10. Yup, this is pretty much how it works and you won’t find other carriers any better (actually, most non-US carriers are worse – you have to rebook to the same destination before you would have flown, no one-year rule). I agree with the person mentioning using twitter, though. Sometimes they will give in to avoid bad publicity. (I recall seeing one of the other airlines back down over another cancer patient reported on flyertalk recently.) That said, nonrefundable usually means just that.

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