5 On Your Side

Cary traveler wants to see airline cancellation rule changed

Posted August 26, 2015 7:26 p.m. EDT
Updated August 27, 2015 6:59 p.m. EDT

— Flying can be frustrating – The lines, the prices, the delays and cancelations.

A Cary woman wants to see changes with a little-known but common airline policy she calls outrageous.

Lee Frankel said a family emergency prompted a last-minute change to an already scheduled flight. When she changed one leg of the flight, she was shocked that American Airlines automatically canceled the rest of the trip.

When Frankel's mother unexpectedly passed away in New York in May, she needed to get there ASAP. So she called American Airlines to move up a flight she'd booked months earlier.

"(I) asked her if I'd be able to switch the flight, she started talking me through all the penalties," Frankel said. "They were adding up to a lot and I said to her, 'Well it sounds like the best thing of me to do is just book the one-way flight 'cause it sounds like it's going to be the same price.'"

The ticket agent agreed, telling Frankel that would be the best thing.

So Frankel bought a one-way ticket to get to New York. It worked out until she got to the airport to fly back to Raleigh.

"They said that there's no record of the ticket," Frankel said. "I said, 'That can't be, there must be confusion."

The issue was that when Frankel didn't take her original outgoing flight, the airline cancelled the entire reservation.

Although many travelers don't realize it until they're caught in the middle of the mess, fair or not, it's airline industry standard policy. If a traveler misses one leg of a flight, most airlines will cancel the entire trip. And if your ticket isn't refundable, the airline gets to keep your fare!

Frankel says that initial agent never told her that was the case.

"Had she told me that, I absolutely would have just been annoyed and outraged but I would have just paid the penalty then so at least I had a flight to come back to," she said.

The cost to book a new flight home cost Frankel another $450. After some debate, American waived the change fees for both Frankel and her husband, but she still had to pay another $150 for the difference in fare on that return flight.

Contacted by 5 On Your Side, an American Airlines spokesman offered apologies and condolences but pointed to the airline's terms and conditions, which most travelers never read.

The policy basically says flights must be used as ticketed. Under a heading called "Ticket Validity," it reads: "Tickets for itineraries with more than one flight segment must be used in accordance with the sequence of flights as they appear in the ticketed itinerary and receipt."

Since the agent never communicated that policy when Frankel was making the ticket change, she feels she shouldn't have had to pay anything extra.

"At a minimum from this experience I'm hoping more people will know," she said. "Just because it's a policy doesn't mean that it's right."

While most airlines have the same policy, there are a few –Southwest and Allegiant included – that allow travelers to call ahead to change a leg or to book legs separately. It's always a good idea to ask and get any agreements in writing.