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Canceled flight? Want your miles back? Good luck!

Your options for fighting back are limited

By Randy Petersen

Cashing In
Cashing In, Randy Petersen
Randy Petersen is editor and publisher of Inside Flyer, which is considered the leading publication in the world about frequent traveler programs. At CreditCards.com, he writes Cashing In, a weekly feature in which he answers readers' questions about credit cards rewards programs.

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert Dear Cashing In,
Can you do a credit card "charge-back" on already used airline miles for canceled flights or poor service? -- Simon

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert Dear Simon,
You may not be surprised, but this is a fairly popular question with both a long and short answer. The best answer, however, for most purposes, is no, you can't. Others have tried, but to little or no avail.

The airlines have what is called "Conditions of Carriage" or "Contract of Carriage" that cover the most basic rules. Of course, most passengers rarely read or come into contact with this long list of legalities. The rules cover what your rights may be regarding canceled flights, but there is nothing that addresses poor customer service.

In defense of any airline, customer service redress isn't available for most -- if not all --  types of service-oriented companies in the travel industry, including hotels and rental cars.

In the past, airlines have lobbied for exclusion on customer service issues. To preclude government intervention, the airlines offered up what is known as CustomersFirst, a 12-point customer service plan. As you may have guessed, the plan has no level of actual responsibility, but rather a set of goals for "committed customer service." Plus, most of the airlines never even distributed these guidelines to passengers, even though that was a requirement of the plan. So, by now you're beginning to understand what your chances are for recovery, right? But there's more.

Let's look first at canceled flights. Here's what the Conditions of Carriage for a large U.S. airline says about that: "This airline will endeavor to carry you and your baggage with reasonable dispatch, but times shown in timetables or elsewhere are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract. This airline may, without notice, substitute alternate carriers or aircraft and, if necessary, may alter or omit stopping places shown on the ticket. Schedules are subject to change without notice. This airline is not responsible for or liable for failure to make connections, or to operate any flight according to schedule, or for a change to the schedule of any flight. Under no circumstances shall this airline be liable for any special, incidental or consequential damages arising from the foregoing."

Considering that these Conditions of Carriage start out with, "Your ticket and the following Conditions of Carriage constitute the contract between you, the passenger, and 'this Airline' and apply to all transportation provided by this Airline...," it would seem that we have got ourselves into a contract where the airline has absolutely no level of responsibility.

There have been a few cases over the years in which airlines have been held legally accountable for their operations, but these are very few and far between. They are often the result of an expensive and lengthy legal battle, including appeals.

In returning to your question, it is highly unlikely that a credit card company would get involved in a dispute with an airline over poor service or a canceled flight. An airline would rebook its canceled flight passengers to other flights instead. The Conditions of Carriage covers any customer service liability.

But I hate to leave any question without some hope. What I would not do is write a general letter to the airline with a complaint. The list of disgruntled passengers is likely pretty long, and there is a general reply to such things. I would search out the name and title of the manager or vice president of the particular airline frequent flier program with which you redeemed your miles. They get far less volume of mail, and judging from the experience of others, these executives typically are much more responsive.

I'd write a letter to this person, outlining the expectations of your trip and exactly what went wrong. You only get a single chance to make your point, so write it out first, let it rest for 24 hours, then refine it. The key is to be very exact in your examples. I would also state a reasonable request, such as a 5,000 mile credit for your account, etc.

Being reasonable will make all the difference. Some members want all their miles refunded, which is rarely even considered. Only you can determine what is reasonable. Once you've got your letter completed, I would sent it FedEx or via USPS special delivery to ensure it gets to the right person with enough importance attached to it. I've done this before and didn't even ask about compensation. Rather, it was the act of expressing my displeasure of the incident that gave me the satisfaction I was looking for.

So, there you have it. No measurable opportunities to get a refund, no real regulated rights as a passenger, but at least a solution to help a frequent flier program know the expectations of its members.

See related: Tips to keep frequent flier miles from expiring, Tracking reward program changes before they happen, How to find the best airline rewards bonus miles deal, Debunking myths about frequent flier programs

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Published: April 9, 2009


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