Who’s At Fault For Not Clarifying Fare Rules?

I get a lot of the questions on the Ask Lucky page of the blog. Some of them I have an answer to and some of them I don’t have an answer to. The below question from reader Ed definitely falls in the latter category. Usually I’d just say “sorry, I’m honestly not sure,” but this is an especially unique situation.

Here’s the question:

I wonder if I can ask for your advice and opinion. I recently purchased a round trip business class ticket thru AMEX travel website on British Airways, and when I purchased the ticket I went through their fare rules closely. The outbound is refundable if you pay 500USD in penalty; on the inbound, the fare rules is not available to be viewed. I now need to cancel the ticket and my first conservation with AMEX was not very fruitful. They were able to see the outbound fare rules, but they thought the inbound was not refundable, but referred me to British Airways for confirmation. When I called British Airways, they could see the outbound rules, but the inbound is in a code that they couldn’t decifer, and referred me back to AMEX.

The next conversation I had with AMEX with not fruitful either. The representative bounced me to a supervisor, who said that even if the rules are not posted or if the website is not functioning, the fact that it is not posted and you still purchase the ticket that you are agreeing to any rule that may or may not be posted. To this day, if you click on that inbound fare rule, it is still not displayable. They can pull it up from within AMEX, but both British Airways and the customer cannot see it. The AMEX supervisor said that it can be a computer glitch, but customer is to blame. So, AMEX would not refund, blaming British Airways for their rule; British Airways in turn blame AMEX for coming up with their own rule and not explicitly posting the fare rule that the airline/customer couldn’t see, and I am stuck in the middle.

I even asked for the Ombudsperson but the “supervisor” told me that is no such thing but to call the 800 number at the back of the card.

If I remember correctly, airline companies got into trouble with the government regulating agencies for not being explicit on the website their hidden fares and rules. If there is not one to be seen or posted, do customers have any recourse? A five thousand dollar ticket is a five thousand dollar ticket.

This is an interesting one, in my opinion.

My initial instinct was “well, I wouldn’t have bought a ticket without knowing the fare rules.” It’s tough to blame someone else when you didn’t clarify the terms associated with a purchase upfront.

Fare-Rules
Sample fare rules

At the same time, it seems like both the travel agent (American Express Travel, in this case) and the airline don’t actually know the fare rules because somehow they’re not published. Is it fair to blame the consumer entirely when you sell someone something without clarifying the terms?

I don’t really have any feedback here, so I’m curious what you guys think. Who’s to blame, both practically and legally, and what rights does Ed have?

I realize I’m in the minority here, but this is one of the reasons I avoid online travel agencies (and I’m speaking more generically of Expedia, Orbitz, etc., and not American Express Travel specifically). Some people think that using an OTA provides an extra layer of protection, but I often find the opposite to be true — it provides the travel agent and airline an opportunity to bounce you back and forth between the two. When everything works as planned the relationship is fine, but when something goes wrong they seem quick to shift blame.

If I were in the above situation (which I wouldn’t be because I’d never buy a ticket without first knowing the fare rules) I’d probably dispute the charge with my credit card company, though I’m not sure how that dynamic changes when you use the credit card company’s travel agency to make the reservation…

Curious what you guys think!

Comments

  1. Buyer beware: AmericanExpressTravel.com is not really American Express…..it’s really just orbitz (and Orbitz does not stand behind the customer the way that AmEx does, in my opinion). Not surprised by Ed’s experience….BUT….Orbitz should make this right instead of simply blaming the consumer.

  2. If the airline is 20-30% more expensive, I’d rather book through an OTA.
    Lufty does expensive fares best!

  3. This happens all the time, even on airline websites (looking at you, Delta). It is absolutely criminal as sellers are not disclosing the full fare information. The airline should be at fault as they are the ones who file the ticket and the rules. Though Amex should be able to help out given their relationship with each airline (via Orbitz).

  4. My opinion is just that, it doesn’t have any legal merit. The way I view this is that, absent of any rules being provided to the consumer, it is reasonable to expect that the consumer would assume that the rules are the same for outbound as for inbound (especially if the same class of service).

    Since we (still) live in a consumer-friendly society, I would expect AET to honor the cancellation with a 2x$500 penalty, even if those rules are not explicitly stated. It seems like a solid compromise and reiterates to the consumer that he/she won’t be left holding the bag if something goes wrong. Travel booking is largely a commodity nowadays, the differentiation is in customer service and reliability.

  5. Skip AET at this point, and simply dispute the charge (less the $500 fee that you knew about) via American Express (the credit card people).

    If nothing was disclosed to you, and nobody (Neither AET nor BA) can see the fare rules, then what? No refund? If not, that’s quite a steep penalty, and it would be illegal, since the penalty was never disclosed when the ticket was purchased. It’s not about simply “the fare rules” not being disclosed, it’s about the full price not being disclosed, and any penalties are part of the price. Which, again, neither AET nor BA can fully understand.

    The statement that “…even if the rules are not posted or if the website is not functioning, the fact that it is not posted and you still purchase the ticket that you are agreeing to any rule that may or may not be posted” is just plain wrong (and I can smell the AET desperation from here). Nobody, still, has been able to furnish terms of the fare, which (again) was never disclosed to the purchaser. We have consumer protection laws for a reason, and this is one of them.

    The DOT would be very interested in this, along with the Conde Nast Ombudsman (hey, it’s an option). I don’t think American Express would be too pleased to know about this, either.

  6. The default is that all fares are refundable without penalty. Anything other than that should be explicitly disclosed in fare rules. If nothing has been disclosed through fare rules (which is the case of this incident), there would be no restriction or penalty for a refund or change whatsoever. It is as simple as that.

  7. No fare rule = no restrictions. If there are restrictions then they will need to spell it out. Dispute the transaction and just deduct $500 for outbound is what I would do

  8. I would most definitely take this up with the DOT and/of CFPB. I imagine one or both of them would find this especially interesting

  9. So, my question is whether he booked two one ways or a round trip. If he booked two one-ways, all bets are off. (I’m not going to touch what happens if he thought he was booking a round trip and instead got a creative ticket from the OTA, ie two one ways.)

    But, if he booked a round trip that was a combination of fare rules (which is typical) then the most restrictive rules apply. I.e., what he sees should be the price he pays.

    He might want to drop the Cranky Concierge a line and see if they’re willing to help (even for a small fee.) Worst case scenario is that he pays the bill and the sues AmEx travel. He’ll probably win in small claims court. Although $5k is on the high end for some jurisdictions.

  10. Sounds like a job for Chris Elliott. 🙂

    I would definitely contact the DoT, FTC, and my state’s attorney general or consumer affairs office. I would let AET know that is where you are headed and give them one last chance to do the right thing before you escalate.

    I agree that if they don’t spell out a specific rule then the expectation should be that the ticket is refundable, not that it’s not refundable.

  11. @ Peter — It depends on the ticket. 95% of my revenue tickets are domestic tickets which I know come with a $200 change fee. For the times I do book paid international business class tickets, yes, I’m always sure to check the change fee on the ticket.

  12. one problem here is that BA loves to collect the money/miles for C/F fares, but balks at refunding or even making changes – maybe they got in so much trouble with DOT/EU regulators that they simply decided not to publish their rules, rather than putting it out there that they will not allow refunds or changes?
    had an issue with them a few years ago where their website went wonky (as the brits say) and would not allow a change before the outbound – but even while admitting that, they would not allow a change or refund once travel had begun – and they were fairly shameless about it (whatever ‘SOL’ is in britspeak) – that was the last time i flew TATL with BA…

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