Q: My friend and I used our frequent-flier miles to book a flight on American Airlines’ partner airline LATAM from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, Argentina. That flight, the only one of the day, was canceled due to pilot illness.
Both LATAM and American refused to rebook us on another flight, each claiming that it was the other’s responsibility. Since we were out of the country with limited resources and time, and we had to reach our destination that day to make a cruise departure, we were forced to buy tickets on a different airline, and we needed to address the issue of compensation when we returned.
Now that that time has come, both airlines are still refusing culpability, leaving us with the bill. Please help us navigate this mess of deniability.
A: Ah, two of my favorite topics — loyalty programs and code sharing. Where to begin?
Maybe here: LATAM should have found another pilot and gotten you to your destination, as promised. Kind of goes without saying. But after that, this case gets a little murky.
LATAM wasn’t contractually obligated to get you to your destination in time for your cruise. But I think there was an understanding that it would fly you there on time, or at least on the same day. That didn’t happen.
There are two complicating factors. First, the fact that you used your frequent-flier miles for these flights. Airlines generally assign little or no value to your award seats. The seats would fly empty if a loyal frequent flier didn’t claim them, and the airline considers a “mile” to be worth a penny or less, give or take.
So when a flight gets canceled, you can understand how an airline might be reluctant to put you and your friend in a revenue seat.
LATAM probably would have flown you to your destination the next day, even if reluctantly. But that brings us to problem No. 2: the code sharing. You redeemed your miles on a partner airline, meaning that you are not a LATAM frequent flier, but American’s “problem.”
Code sharing can be a real mess, at least for passengers. It allows airlines to collude instead of compete in the marketplace, and it lets them play “pass the buck” with a case like yours.
This could have been avoided by giving yourself more time to get to your cruise or by booking a flight on an airline that flew to your destination more than once a day. But really, it shouldn’t have been an issue at all.
With the assistance of the advocates on my help forum, you found the right customer-service contacts at both airlines. American refunded your miles for the ticket and added 10,000 bonus miles “for the inconvenience.”
Your friend tweeted LATAM and included a video of the passengers on your flight “rioting.” LATAM agreed to refund half of your expenses.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.