Billed by American Airlines -- and then billed again

Russell Higley is promised a refund after his flight is canceled. But now his airline is trying to bill him twice for a flight he never took. What's the problem?

Q: I read your columns and appreciate what you have done to help especially the less fortunate among us who are being wronged with financial penalties because we did not receive a promised refund. For someone like me, who is nearly 67 years old, with a pacemaker, heart and liver disease, and arthritis, this $371 loss is a nightmare.

American Airlines canceled my flight from New York to Palm Springs, Calif., and agreed to refund my fare.

When the amount did not appear on my account, I disputed the charge on my American Airlines-branded credit card. My credit card offered a provisional credit, and the next day American issued a second $371 credit.

All was well until a few months later, when another $371 charge was placed on my account.

Despite a dozen phone calls to American Airlines customer service, emails, and three written disputes faxed to the airline, the charge has stuck and further, I have been charged $6 in interest against this unpaid balance.

When I call American customer service, they refer me back to American Airlines' credit card; when I call American Airlines' credit card, they refer me back to American customer service. No one takes responsibility to review what is an obvious error. I am getting nowhere! -- Russell Higley, Elmsford, New York

A: American should have promptly refunded your ticket, and the refund should have stuck. In fact, according to American's conditions of carriage -- the legal agreement between you and the airline -- refunds will be provided within seven business days of receipt of the required refund information.

Here's what went wrong: When the refund didn't appear as promised, you contacted your credit card to place the amount in dispute. Even though you have a co-branded American Airlines card, it is offered through a bank, so the airline has no control over what happens to your dispute. The bank sided with you.

American's billing system appears to have crossed its own wires between your initial charge, which was initially a valid one, and your subsequent refund request. It looks as if it incorrectly tagged your dispute as being in error, probably because it was already in the process of refunding your ticket.

This case underscores the importance of being patient when you're waiting for a refund from an airline, or any travel company. Of course, there's no excuse for American dragging its feet on a refund, but by jumping ahead of it and disputing the charge, you ended up confusing it.

How long should you wait for a refund? Anywhere from four to six weeks. After that, you need to be bothering the company for the money. (I list the names and numbers of their managers on my website: http://elliott.org/contacts/american-airlines-2/)Use a credit card dispute only as a last resort.

I contacted American on your behalf, and it apologized, refunded your $371 and offered you a $125 voucher for a future flight.

(Christopher Elliott is the author of "How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler (and Save Time, Money and Hassle)" (National Geographic). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at chris@elliott.org. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, which he answers as quickly as possible, but because of a backlog of cases, your story may not be published for several months.)

(c)2014 CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

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