American Airlines just made a sneaky decision that may appall customers

This is one that, some might say, comes straight from the modus operandi of so many tech companies. Yet, especially if you're traveling on business, you could face a very unpleasant surprise.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

The less liability airline. Now that's a tagline.

Screenshot by ZDNet

Flying has always been an activity that requires a balance, of hope, expectation, patience and fear that it's all going to go wrong.

This may, at least partly, be because four big airlines own more than 80% of all America's seats. It may also be because these four airlines tend to run their businesses with very little room for maneuver when things go awry.

Still, one of the raunchiest debates currently is whether business travel will ever return. Or should that be "return"?

Some believe Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Webex and their brethren have become so ingrained in our business lives that they now masquerade as natural behavior.

Others still cling to the nirvanesque idea that humans need to be with humans in person, in order to be truly effective. And happy.

In, then, steps American Airlines to encourage businesses to let their people fly. On Delta, United or Southwest, that is.

As spotted by travel writer JT Genter, American thought the week before Labor Day the perfect time to quietly change its so-called conditions of carriage. (As if modern flying in some way resembles being driven in a private horse-pulled four-wheeler.)

The Condition Of My Carriage Is Subject To Change.

You may be familiar with the sleight of word that comes with changes in, say, the terms and conditions of almost every service you use on the web.

The tech company tells you and you don't read them. You subsequently realize the tech company now owns the right to tell everyone which website you frequent, and perhaps also to remotely photograph your pets.

These new American carriage conditions, slipped in without notice, may incite similar turbulence.

Sample: "We are not liable if: We're late or you don't make your connection, we change the schedule of any flight, we (or our partners) cancel a flight or route, your checked baggage is late (except as required by statute, regulation, or Convention) [or] there are special, incidental or consequential damages because of these changes."

While I hear a Facebook lawyer snigger in admiration, I find myself wondering: "Is American Airlines trying to say it's not really liable if anything goes wrong? Anything at all? It's not liable if it or its partners cancel a flight? Really?"

I fear one or two American Airlines customers may wonder whether this all sounds a touch one-sided. Can a company really make such a draconian declaration?

Well, how about this on the subject of voluntary bumping: "When you volunteer to give up your confirmed seat on a flight, we will compensate you in a form and in an amount we think is fair."

This is quite some fairness doctrine, especially coming from an industry not universally renowned for its fairness.

Talking of fairness, this sentence may excite: "If we or our airline partner fails to operate or delays your arrival more than 4 hours, our sole obligation is to refund the remaining ticket value and any optional fees according to our involuntary refunds policy."

There's customer service for you.

Stranded? Hey, It Happens.

Now that we're on that subject, please, intrepid business traveler, fear being stranded by American.

The airline used to cover the cost of an overnight stay or cover the cost of an approved hotel. Now, not so much.

Instead this: "We don't guarantee reimbursement for hotel expenses if you book directly without written authorization from American Airlines."

If there's one thing that must be so easy when you're stranded, it's to get written authorization from the airline to, you know, get a night's sleep.

Other changes might similarly move you.

It used to be that, if the airline caused you to miss a connection, it would get you on the first available flight, American or not. Now, not anyone but only on American or one of its partners. Which might prove a little more awkward.

Why Now? Who Knows?

In a fit a naiveté, I asked American why it had chosen to make these changes at this time. I'll update, should a response arrive at my gate.

Some observers believe the airline is merely offering legal definitions of practices it's upheld for some time.

Still, though, why now? Why, when you want business travelers to feel more confident, when you're worried that the Delta variant is slowing business?

The excessively cynical will point to a more specifically disturbed airline landscape.

In American's case, the airline's pilots are threatening to picket if management doesn't change its ways. The pilots' union offered these troubling thoughts: "Unfortunately, management has repeatedly demonstrated its inability to run a reliable airline."

So this "too bad if you're stranded" idea is consistent with this allegation?

The union also claims "management often resorts to making up its own rules" during flight delays.

The problem with such recondite changes for passengers is that they don't really know about them. Until, that is, they're affected by them.

If you remember business travel, it did sometimes involve tight connections and tiring demands. Imagine getting stranded, not getting American Airlines' written approval because there are 54 people in front of you and only one customer service person at the desk and then having to explain the costs to your CFO.

Shortly after they declare: "Expense denied."

It's not exactly an inducement to flying for a sales meeting, is it?

By the by, the current American Airlines tagline is: "You Are Why We Fly."

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