American Airlines said my flight was delayed. So why did it leave early?

21 April 2023

TPG reader Tommy Joseph recently learned some difficult lessons about what not to do during a flight delay

While waiting out a four-hour delay on his American Airlines flight from Denver International Airport (DEN) to Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT), Joseph decided he had plenty of time to visit the American Express Centurion Lounge and enjoy some snacks and drinks, use the restroom and take advantage of having a quiet, calm place to sit instead of the crowded concourse. 

While he was there, though, American Airlines shortened the flight delay and prepared the aircraft to leave. By the time Joseph noticed an email from the airline about the schedule change, there was no way he could make it all the way back from the lounge to the gate in time. 

Joseph eventually made it home, but he decided to complain about the circumstances to American Airlines afterward … and got a shock when the carrier was unsympathetic to his communication. 

Now, Joseph is asking TPG for help. He’s hoping we can get a complete explanation from American Airlines about how this happened — and compensation for his inconvenience. 

But is American Airlines responsible if a passenger strays far from the gate during a delay and misses the flight?

Taking a weekend trip with American Airlines

Last fall, Joseph and some friends decided to take a short getaway to the mountains of Colorado. 

“This trip was a mountain weekend with friends,” Joseph recalled. “American Airlines had one of the only nonstop options from Charlotte, so I didn’t have much choice — unless I wanted to have a much longer travel duration.”  

Joseph booked his trip through American Express Travel and was soon on his way to Denver. 

After two enjoyable days with his friends in the fresh mountain air, Joseph got up well before dawn to head back to the airport. His return flight was scheduled to leave Denver at 5 a.m.

Joseph says he breezed through check-in and security and boarded the aircraft before the sun was even up. As the plane pushed back, he relaxed into his seat and began resting his eyes. This short trip had gone off without a hitch.

Moments later, however, everything started going south.

The pilot came on the intercom and told the travelers the plane had a problem, and they were returning to the gate. Once there, he told everyone to gather their belongings and deplane.

The American Airlines flight is delayed … please stand by

ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY

An irritated plane full of travelers did as the pilot asked and disembarked from the aircraft. Joseph says that initially, the American Airlines staff in the gate area predicted that the flight delay would be short. 

“They [the American Airlines crew] said it was a clogged oil filter in the engine,” Joseph told me. “It would take less than an hour to fix and I watched the mechanics out the window working.”

Joseph’s first alert about the flight delay came in the form of an email from American Airlines at 5:41 a.m. That email estimated the new departure time to be 6:41 a.m.

As an experienced world traveler, Joseph was accustomed to the drill during a flight delay. He waited patiently for the update that the repair had been completed and the passengers could reboard. 

But just seven minutes later, at 5:48 a.m., he received another email from American Airlines about the delayed flight. This note brought bad news — the flight delay had been extended by four hours. The new departure time was 10:15 a.m.

Joseph says there was no way he was going to sit at the gate for four hours. He checked for the location of the airport’s American Express Centurion Lounge. His gate was in Concourse A, while the lounge was quite a distance away in Concourse C. But with a four-hour wait, he reasoned he had plenty of time to spare.  

He grabbed his carry-on and headed to the Centurion Lounge, contenting himself with the thought of a decent breakfast and nicer bathrooms than the public concourses would afford.

Unfortunately, his decision would cause the rest of his day to take an even more unpleasant turn. 

Surprise! Your American Airlines delayed flight is about to leave early

Joseph says that when he arrived at the Centurion Lounge, he enjoyed a lovely breakfast. 

He was exhausted and also worried about what was causing the extended delay on the American Airlines aircraft. 

“So far, I had only taken short bathroom breaks because of the confusing situation on the plane and at the gate. I was extremely tired. I took a more extended trip to the bathroom, and when I next checked my email, I noticed another message from AA at 6:31 a.m. stating that the departure was revised again, in the opposite direction, by almost three hours, to 7:15 a.m.!”

It was already too late when Joseph read the latest email from American Airlines. He was several concourses away, and the flight was scheduled to depart in about 15 minutes. 

“I ran to the gate, but by the time I arrived, the doors were closed, and the plane was pushing back,” Joseph told me. 

Shocked by the shortening of the flight delay, he approached nearby American Airlines employees. 

“They helped reroute me, but there were no nonstops available,” Joseph told me. “I ended up getting home that night 10 hours later than I expected. American Airlines needs to explain itself.”

Once home, Joseph began sending complaints to American Airlines about his experience in Denver. He soon found that the airline did not intend to “explain itself” and that, according to the contract of carriage, he was the one responsible for his missed flight.

Asking TPG for help dealing with American Airlines

ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY

After Joseph’s repeated emails to American Airlines did not result in an outcome he found positive, he sent his request for assistance to TPG. 

When I reviewed his tale, it was clear that American Airlines was holding firm to its contract of carriage. That document reminds passengers that all flight “schedules are subject to change without notice.” 

Per its terms: 

(C) Schedules, delays and cancellation of flights

(1) Schedules

Times shown in timetables or elsewhere are approximate and not guaranteed, and form no part of the contract of carriage. Schedules are subject to change without notice and carrier assumes no responsibility for making connections. Aa will not be responsible for errors or omissions either in timetables or other representations of schedules.” 

— American Airlines’ contract of carriage

That clause about schedules subject to change includes flight delays, which can swing one way or another with little warning. If a passenger goes no-contact — even for a brief time — they’re at risk of missing their flight. 

The American Airlines agent who responded to Joseph’s complaint explained, “Revised departure times are only estimates. Passengers should always stay within close proximity of the gate during a delay.” 

Still, as a goodwill gesture, American Airlines offered Joseph a token 5,000 AAdvantage miles for what he termed his “inconvenience.”  

Joseph felt disappointed by the response. He expected American Airlines to explain the exact nature of the flight delay. However, airlines do not owe passengers specific, technical reasons for a flight delay. There are no laws or regulations that require them to divulge this information. 

But by now, Joseph believed that the alert about the four-hour delay had been sent in error. He was convinced that there was no technical reason for the extended delay. And when the agent suggested that his bathroom trip, where he went no-contact, was the problem, he had a rebuttal. 

You seem not to understand the human factor – the need to eat and use the bathroom, especially for an early 5 a.m. flight.

This error looks very clear to me as a pure human typo error, software error, or something outside the scope of a reasonable estimate or operational need. What actual legitimate operational challenge could have resulted in such an irrational string of departure time changes?

— Joseph, in one of his many emails to American Airlines

He went on to point out to the agent that in less than an hour, he had received three updates about the status of the flight delay: first, an announcement of a 45-minute delay, then of a four-hour delay, and then suddenly an imminent departure update.

And while it wasn’t entirely clear when Joseph had read the final message in the lounge, I thought our executive contact at American Airlines might want to have a look at Joseph’s complaint. 

TPG asks American Airlines: What went wrong here?

As I often do with the consumers who contact me, I asked Joseph what specific resolution would make him feel better about the situation (keeping in mind that it is the passenger’s responsibility to maintain awareness during a flight delay). 

He told me that 15,000 AAdvantage miles would quell his aggravation about what he believed to be a mistake in the American Airlines alert system. 

I sent his complaint over to American Airlines with his suggested resolution with the following note:

He didn’t see this last updated alert until it was too late. He missed his flight. It looks like the flight departed at 7:26 am.

I know this one is murky because he shouldn’t have gone “no contact” for his extended bathroom break, but he believes that because of the many delay notifications he received, he let his guard down. Can your team have a look?”

— Michelle, in an email to an American Airlines spokesperson

A goodwill gesture from American Airlines — and a cautionary tale

AMERICAN AIRLINES

Ultimately, American Airlines gave Joseph a goodwill gesture in the form of the 15,000 AAdvantage miles he requested. Those miles came with a reminder to Joseph that flight delays can always be altered and passengers should remain prepared to leave at any time. 

Joseph is pleased with the outcome — although he is still convinced the alert of a four-hour delay was a computer glitch. But one thing is for sure: He will never get caught off-guard during a flight delay again. Next time he’ll be sure to check his phone regularly if he departs the gate area. 

What to do (and not to do) during an extended flight delay

A memo released by the Federal Aviation Administration last month predicts that there will be a sharp increase in delayed flights in the upcoming summer vacation season. So travelers should prepare themselves and never assume a flight delay is set in stone.

Remember, as an air passenger, you are bound by the contract of carriage of your airline. Every commercial airline worldwide incorporates language into its policies about the fluid nature of schedules. If you miss your flight because you fail to show up at the gate when the aircraft is cleared to depart, you’re not entitled to compensation. Worse, you could end up being required to purchase a new ticket to reach your destination. 

Here’s what you need to know about what to do during an extended flight delay.

Make sure your contact information is current

It goes without saying that if your contact information isn’t current with the airline, you won’t receive real-time updates for your flight. But travelers often overlook this detail. Before any trip, double-check that your contact information is up to date and that you’ve enabled email or text alerts in your account settings.

If you’ve booked your flight through a third-party agent, the airline may send automatic schedule-change alerts or delay notifications there instead of to you. It’s a good idea to sign in to your frequent flyer account with the airline and manually add the details of your itinerary and request flight alerts if the agent hasn’t done so for you. 

Always ensure that your booking agent has a way to reach you regularly during your trip as well.

Download your airline’s app

Most airlines today have their own app that you can download to your mobile device. You can register to receive alerts for any flight in the airline’s system. So no matter how you booked your flight, you’ll be able to set yourself up to receive notifications. 

These apps are a great way to keep an eye on your flight’s status in real time — or even the flight status of a friend or family member. They also offer a plethora of other helpful travel information, such as nearby restaurants, lounges, your baggage claim area, weather at your destination and more. 

Frequently checking your airline’s app will greatly decrease the chances of you getting left behind at the airport if your departure time changes.

Go to the airport on time for your original departure

Unfortunately, many travelers receive notification of a flight delay from their airline and erroneously assume they can adjust their arrival time at the airport or gate accordingly. This mistake can easily lead to a missed flight — or worse, the loss of the value of the ticket. 

If you arrive at the airport after your original check-in time and the delay has been cut down, you may already be marked as a no-show. Passengers who are no-shows are in danger of having their tickets voided by the airline.

To dodge that unpleasant outcome, always plan to arrive at the airport as originally scheduled. Most of the time, the airline will reinforce this message when informing you of a possible or impending delay. Don’t ignore it.

Maintain your awareness at the airport

Air travelers frequently let their guard down inside the airport after clearing security. During an extended flight delay, they may fall asleep, go for drinks in a loud bar or even leave the security area altogether. 

Of course, passengers should feel comfortable heading to a lounge to pass the time while waiting for takeoff. But straying too far from the gate or going no-contact for an extended time is tempting fate.

Always maintain your vigilance, make sure your notifications are on and frequently check your emails and texts during a flight delay.

When can you reschedule or cancel for a refund?

If your airline has sent you an alert indicating that the delay on your flight is lengthy, you may want to consider rescheduling or canceling your trip. 

You’ll need to check your airline’s contract of carriage to determine the exact length the delay must be for you to qualify to cancel for a refund. For American Airlines, that time frame is four hours – which is much longer than in pre-pandemic days, when a 90-minute schedule change allowed a passenger to cancel for a refund.  

Consider travel insurance

Consumers often contact me to complain about the financial consequences of a flight delay or cancellation. Many of these troubled travelers believe the airline must reimburse them for losses incurred during a flight disruption. 

But in the United States, no federal laws or regulations compel airlines to compensate travelers for missed events, nonrefundable hotels, car or vacation rentals, missed work or anything else. 

To protect your wallet from the impact of a flight delay or cancellation, consider purchasing travel insurance, even for domestic trips. A comprehensive travel insurance policy with a trip delay or disruption clause should cover losses resulting from delays. That is, assuming the traveler didn’t cause the delay by missing their flight after going off the grid. Travel insurance will not cover self-created delays. 

You can use a site such as InsureMyTrip to get a free quote and compare various travel insurance policies based on your personal details. 

Premium credit card holders may have built-in protection

THE POINTS GUY

Many premium cards, like The Platinum Card® from American Express and the Chase Sapphire Reserve, provide certain types of travel protections to their cardholders. It’s important to check your card’s membership benefits for details before relying on this type of travel protection. Enrollment may be required for select benefits.

For example, Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholders who use their card to purchase airline tickets and are affected by a flight delay of six hours or more or experience an overnight delay are eligible for up to $500 per person in compensation for reasonable expenses such as meals and accommodations. This benefit is secondary to any other insurance the traveler might be carrying.

American Express Platinum cardholders also have a $500 trip delay benefit for covered losses incurred after a minimum six-hour delay. Only round-trip flights purchased entirely with the Platinum card are covered. Additionally, there is a cap of two trip delay claims per year, and coverage is secondary to any other insurance. 

These benefits will not apply if the travel delay was caused by a mistake on the part of the cardholder.

Bottom line

Until staffing shortages are addressed across the airline industry, flight delays will likely continue to be an increasingly common reality of air travel. But knowing what to expect can help lessen a flight delay’s negative impact on your next trip. 

While we’re happy to have been able to help Joseph, it’s important to reiterate that American Airlines provided this goodwill gesture in the hopes that other passengers might learn from it. Travelers in similar circumstances who miss their flight should not expect the same outcome. 

During a flight delay, it’s always the passenger’s responsibility to be prepared and ready to go when the aircraft is cleared to leave. Flight delays are always subject to change. Going no-contact for any amount of time during a flight delay is unwise, and if you miss your flight, your airline’s terms and conditions will not support your request for compensation.

So always keep your eye on those flight updates and save yourself this type of unnecessary hassle. 

If you find yourself in a customer service battle with an airline, cruise line, car rental agency, hotel or credit card company, send your request for help to [email protected], and I’ll be happy to help you too.

For rates and fees of the Amex Platinum card, click here.

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