Last February, Susan Dunlap was excitedly planning an adventure to Hawaii. Unfortunately, soon after she made the reservation, the coronavirus made it clear the trip was ill-advised. Despite her hopes for a full refund, American Airlines quickly issued a hefty $2,635 future flight credit.
Now, Dunlap is afraid that the pandemic will make it impossible to ever use that flight credit from American Airlines. So she’s asking the Elliott Advocacy team to mediate a cash refund instead.
But can we?
Unfortunately, Dunlap is just one of the thousands of disappointed travelers who’ve had their plans disrupted by the coronavirus this year. For those passengers who preemptively canceled their flights, a future credit is likely all that’s in the cards. But the good news is that the airlines are offering more cancellation and rebooking flexibility than ever. And if Dunlap plays her cards right, she won’t come out the loser.
Planning to visit Hawaii until the coronavirus mandatory quarantine made it impossible
Earlier this year, The Navy hired Dunlap’s son, a contractor, for a temporary project at the base in Honolulu. He would travel from their home state of Illinois and spend several months on the island of Oahu.
“I thought it would be a great idea to plan a visit to Hawaii while he was there,” Dunlap recalled. “In February, I bought a first-class ticket to Honolulu on American Airlines for April.”
Then Dunlap spent precisely one month happily planning for the journey before she started to hear warnings about the coronavirus. She began to suspect that the long flight to Hawaii might be a bad idea. But she still held out some hope.
Then came March 21.
That day, the governor of Hawaii issued a 14-day mandatory quarantine order for any incoming travelers to the state.
“With the majority of Hawai’i’s COVID-19 cases linked to travel, it is critical that we further mitigate the spread of the virus by both residents and visitors who are coming from out-of-state,” the governor wrote in his order.
Dunlap knew that the quarantine order made her trip impossible. She was only flying to Oahu for 10 days. She had no interest in spending her entire trip inside her son’s temporary housing on the beautiful island.
Her next call was to American Airlines to cancel her flight.
Fact: American Airlines only owes a refund if it cancels the flight
It’s important for travelers to keep in mind that American only owes a refund to the passenger if the airline cancels the flight first. (See: What does American Airlines really owe you if it cancels your flight?)
Dunlap says that she spoke to someone at American Airlines about her flight cancellation who approved a refund.
“They [American Airlines] said ‘yes, the ticket would be refunded’ within the week,” Dunlap recalled. “But in June, I received notice that my ticket was now nonrefundable. I don’t know why.”
As I read through the paper trail Dunlap provided, I noted that the refund promise wasn’t in writing. I suspected that the genesis of this misunderstanding was in the original cancellation call.
The U.S. Department of Transportation requires airlines to refund passengers if the carrier cancels the flight first. This regulation does not apply if the passenger panics and cancels first.
This is something we’ve been warning travelers about since early March when the pandemic began. Many travelers erroneously believed that their airline owed them a refund if there were quarantine orders in place at the destination. This is not the case. If your flight operates and you’re not on it, the airline will not owe you a refund.
Additionally, if you don’t cancel your flight before it takes off, some carriers may call you a no-show and you’ll receive nothing — not even a credit.
If you cancel your flight before American Airlines, you’re getting a voucher
In Dunlap’s case, she had canceled the flight before the airline.
Thanks for your prompt reply. I believe I did cancel before they did simply because of the danger to my health.
Is there anything I can do to try and get the money back? I am very afraid that this virus will not be gone before the ticket expires in February.
Unfortunately, I knew then that American Airlines only owed Dunlap a future flight credit. But I also knew that it should not be expiring in February 2021.
It was time to contact our executive contact at American Airlines about this flight credit confusion.
Asking American Airlines about the expiration date
Since the pandemic began earlier this year, the airlines have been continually changing their policies about coronavirus cancellations. Earlier in the crisis, many airlines, including American Airlines, were still quite strict about the issued flight credits expiration dates.
Pre-COVID-19, American Airlines’ flight credit policy required a passenger to pay a change fee and use the credit entirely within one year from the original ticket purchase.
I believed that American Airlines had initially given Dunlap her flight credit expiration date based on the pre-COVID-19 policy. So I reached out to our executive contact at the airline.
How are you?
I wondered if you could just take a quick look at this case and let me know when this elderly lady’s flight credit expires (Susan Dunlap, Locator: ******)? She says that someone at American told her Feb 2021. She’s worried now that she won’t be able to travel by then. I thought the vouchers are good through December 31, 2021. I’m just trying to alleviate her concern about not being able to spend her voucher. Could your team confirm how long this credit is valid? Thank you!!😊 (Michelle to American Airlines)
American Airlines: “Flight credit is good through March 31, 2022.”
And the good news for Dunlap came right away. Her American Airlines flight credit is good through [March 31, 2022]**
**March 2022 update: American Airlines has extended the expiration date of flight credit issued during the pandemic: Book by Sept. 30, 2022 and travel by Dec. 31, 2022
Hi, Michelle! I hope all is well.
She is fine – here is our policy for rebooking – and she just uses the existing ticket:
American Airlines waives the change fee if you:
Bought your ticket on or before July 31, 2020
Are scheduled to travel March 1 – September 30, 2020
Can travel on or before [March 31, 2022]
Keep in mind, you may owe any difference in ticket price when you rebook your trip.
Details @ aa.com/travelalerts
She bought her ticket on February 12 and her travel was April 9-20. So she is covered.
She can use the full amount – $2,634.67 – and just uses the existing ticket to rebook/complete travel by [Update: Book by Sept. 30, 2022 and travel by Dec. 31, 2022] (American Airlines to Michelle)
But then Dunlap had one more question about her giant flight credit.
Michelle, That is great news!!! Thank you so much for all of your work.
I do have a question. Due to the amount of money involved in the “refund,” I would like to have reassurance from American Airlines that I can use this for at least two flights. How do you suggest I get that reassurance? (Dunlap to Michelle)
So one more trip back to our American Airlines executive contact and all Dunlap’s concerns were eliminated. He quickly confirmed that she could use her flight credit over multiple trips — she just needs to spend it all by [March 31, 2022]. (Note: American Airlines flight credit expiration policy is a “use by” date — meaning that all rebooked itineraries must begin by the expiration date).
What you need to know about using your flight credits — on American Airlines or any other airline
The airlines are making it easier than ever for you to use your flight credit during the coronavirus crisis. But you’re going to want to make sure you understand all the terms and conditions that come with yours. Here are the things you need to know about spending your future flight credit.
- Mind the expiration date
Remember, all flight credit comes with an expiration date. Make sure you’re familiar with the one attached to yours or you could end up with nothing (What happened to my Hawaiian Dream?). **Since this article was first published, American Airlines has extended the expiration dates of its flight credits several times. March 2022 update: Most flight credits issued during the pandemic have been extended. Travelers must book by Sept. 30, 2022, and travel by Dec. 31, 2022.
- Read the terms of your flight credit
Visit American Airlines’ website to check on the current policies that apply to your flight credit. You can also find links to the current coronavirus cancellation and voucher policies on all the major airlines here— we keep that article updated for your convenience.
- U.S. airlines eliminated change fees in 2020
At the end of August 2020, most major airlines in the U.S. made the shocking move to permanently eliminate change fees for domestic flights and on limited international flights. (*It’s important to note that as of April 1, 2021, this policy does not cover Basic Economy fares. Passengers will lose the entire value of their ticket if they do not use the ticket as booked.) This is good news for travelers with flight credit on American Airlines or any other carrier. You’ll be able to apply your entire voucher to your future trip — no change fees involved. But…
- Flight differential costs will apply
Remember, change fees and flight differentials are two separate things. A change fee is what the airline charges you for the privilege of being able to apply a nonrefundable ticket to a new ticket. A fare differential is the difference between what you paid for the original ticket and the new ticket’s current cost. The airlines are not waiving fare differentials.
- You can only use the credit for the cost of a new ticket
In most cases, the value of your flight credit can only be applied to the cost of a new ticket. You’ll need to pay for incidentals like seat assignments and baggage fees.
- Third-party booking sites’ rules apply
Keep in mind that if you purchased your ticket through a third-party booking agent, the rules of that site apply. Even if the airline canceled your flight, you may need to pay an administrative fee. You should make sure you understand the terms and conditions of your ticket purchase before you make the purchase. (See: If the coronavirus ruined your travel plans, this is what you need to know).
- Flight credit policies are constantly updating because of the pandemic
It’s critical to check your airline’s flight credit policies frequently. As in Dunlap’s case, American Airlines cited one policy in March, but a new, more consumer-friendly policy applied to her American Airlines flight credit later. As the pandemic lingers, you can expect more changes from the airlines to address the ongoing crisis (see the below update).
And P.S.: If you’ve got United Airlines flight credits, you’ll want to check out our guide to spending those.
Update: Good news — passengers can convert flight credit to trip credit for more flexibility
American Airlines is making it easier for travelers to spend their flight credits. Similar to what has been an option for United Airlines customers for some time, American Airlines passengers can now convert flight credit into the more flexible trip credit. Once converted, trip credit is good for an additional year and can be used by the holder to book flights for themselves and for others. That’s great news for passengers who don’t intend to go traveling by the expiration of their current flight credits.
American Airlines passengers holding flight credit should be on the lookout for an email from the carrier with Trip Credit converting instructions. AAdvantage members may find that the conversion has been done automatically. Check your account for those changes.*Travelers wishing to take advantage of this offer should act quickly as there is no guarantee as to how long it will continue. We know as of Dec. 2021, passengers were still reporting success asking for the conversion.
Jan 14, 2022 update: Yesterday, Delta Air Lines announced a broad extension on all flight credits issued during the pandemic. As we know that carriers often follow each other’s lead on policies, we’ll be keeping our eyes on American to extend its vouchers and flight credit as well. Stay tuned…
March 15, 2022 update: American has extended flight credit issued during the pandemic (Credit issued between Jan 1, 2020 and Dec. 31, 2021). Travelers must now book by Sept. 30, 2022 and complete travel by Dec. 31, 2022.
*Finally, as travel slowly begins to resume, don’t forget, all passengers are currently required to wear a mask throughout their air travel in the U.S. (See: This is what happens if you refuse to wear a mask on your next flight.) So don’t forget to pack your most comfortable and favorite mask should you find yourself flying again during the pandemic. If you don’t, you won’t likely be going anywhere but back to your car.
Stay safe, everyone! (Last updated March 15, 2022)