Reader Question: Etihad Airways Refund Hell

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A LoyaltyLobby reader sent me an email about an issue his family was having with Etihad Airways for a trip canceled due to flight delays/cancellations and issues dealing with American Airlines.

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You can access Etihad’s website here.

Here’s the email from the reader:

I have come across your blog a few times and am emailing you regarding a serious issue with attempting to get Etihad Airlines to refund 3 business class tickets (2 adults and an infant). Apologies for the lengthy email. For the past three months I’ve been trying to get a refund from Etihad to no avail. I also attempted to dispute this with my card company but Etihad has rejected the claim they filed on my behalf claiming my ticket is non refundable. I finally sent an email to Etihad executives, including James Hogan and am hoping they will respond.

In the event they do not respond or fail to provide a resolution, do you suggest I file complaints with Dept of Transportation and Better Business Bureau in Texas? What other means do I have short of filing a law suit? Unfortunately my claim is more than $10,000 so small claims court is not an option.

My flight was to depart on July 27, 2016 from Houston to Abu Dhabi (via a connection in Dallas) and then onwards to Lagos on August 1. The return was the same route starting on August 8, 2016. The Etihad agent who handled the booking informed me that because Etihad does not fly out of Houston, I would put me on a code share partner, American Airlines, for the Houston portions of the trip. At no point did I request American Airlines or pay American Airlines for any portion of the tickets.

Upon arriving at the Houston airport on July 27th, we were told that the American Airlines flight to Dallas was going to be delayed. The flight ended up being delayed by more than two hours, which caused us to miss the connecting flight from Dallas to Abu Dhabi. Immediately we arrived in Dallas, I called Etihad’s U.S. customer service number to inform them of my missed connection due to my delayed flight from Houston. I was told by the agent that since the Etihad counter in Dallas was now closed, I needed to go to the American Airlines ticketing desk so that American Airlines could rebook me on the next Etihad flight to Abu Dhabi. I questioned the agent why Etihad could not rebook me themselves and was told that it would have to be done via American Airlines since the delayed American Airlines flight was the cause of the issue. He assured me that as a code share partner, American Airlines had the ability to book me on an Etihad flight.

I proceeded to the nearest American Airlines ticketing counter. After explaining the situation to an American Airlines ticketing supervisor, the supervisor confirmed that she would indeed be able to rebook us on the next Etihad flight to Abu Dhabi. She informed us that due to Etihad’s Dallas flight schedule, the next flight would be two days later on July 29. The supervisor stated that if we were willing to fly from Dallas to San Francisco that night, she could put us on an Etihad flight from San Francisco to Abu Dhabi the next morning (July 28). Despite agreeing to this, the supervisor was unable to re-issue the tickets in time for us to catch any of the remaining flights from Dallas to San Francisco.

The supervisor then asked if we would be willing to fly from Dallas to Chicago early the next morning in order to catch an afternoon Etihad flight from Chicago to Abu Dhabi. Unfortunately, the supervisor continued to have trouble reissuing the tickets. I called Etihad customer service and had the Etihad agent speak with the American Airlines supervisor. They jointly attempted to resolve the issue for the next few hours. Finally at about 2am (keep in mind my conversation with the American Airlines supervisor started at 8pm) I informed the supervisor that I needed to get my wife and three month baby to a hotel and could not continue to stand at an airline counter while American Airlines and Etihad figured out how to complete what should be the simple task of reissuing tickets. I told her that I was now willing to fly to Abu Dhabi from Chicago on July 28 or Dallas on July 29, whatever was easiest for her to rebook. She told me that she would email the confirmation to me so that I did not have to continue to keep my family at the airport.

At about 9am that morning, I realized I had not received an email confirmation for the flight so I again called Etihad customer service. I was informed that I had not been rebooked on any flight and that unfortunately the flights from both Chicago on July 28 and Dallas on July 29 were both sold out. The Etihad agent told me that I would need to get back in touch with American Airlines to figure out why I was not rebooked, as I had been assured, and how I would be booked on the next available flight. I continued to express dismay that Etihad agents kept sending me to American Airlines despite the fact that I had Etihad tickets. With no other choice, I immediately left my hotel for the Dallas airport and asked to speak with the most senior person in charge of ticketing. I relayed the history of the situation to the American Airlines ticketing manager, including how the supervisor the night before was unable to rebook us despite keeping us waiting for 6 hours.

The manager was extremely apologetic and confirmed that the next available Etihad flight from Dallas was on July 31, 4 days after I was supposed to leave Dallas. I pointed out to the manager how unacceptable that was, and explained that such a late departure would cause us to miss my brother in law’s wedding which was the whole point of our travel. The manager advised that there was availability on the Etihad flight from San Francisco to Abu Dhabi the next morning, July 29 but we would have to depart from Dallas to San Francisco in the next few hours. I agreed to this new flight schedule, provided that we had confirmed seats from San Francisco to Abu Dhabi. She assured me that we would be confirmed and proceeded over the next hour to printed out boarding passes for our flight from Dallas to San Francisco and paper tickets for the San Francisco to Abu Dhabi segment. She even asked that I return to the airport immediately with my family so that she could tag our bags through to Abu Dhabi.

We flew to San Francisco that night expecting to be on the flight to Abu Dhabi the next morning. The next morning when we attempted to check in at the Etihad counter in San Francisco, we were told by the counter agent that our tickets had not been properly issued and that we would not be able to check in. I explained to her that we had paper tickets and that our bags were already tagged all the way through from Dallas. The Etihad counter supervisor stated that because the rebooking was done by American Airlines, only American Airlines could reissue the ticket. I called American Airlines customer service, explained our entire ordeal of the past two days and handed the phone to the Etihad supervisor so that Etihad and American Airlines could communicate directly. The Etihad agent and the American Airlines agent spent the next 1.5 hours trying to reissue the ticket. Unfortunately, and sadly, the tickets could not be issued and the flight departed with us standing at the counter devastated. At this point I demanded to know why my family and I were flown to San Francisco without still having a confirmed ticket to Abu Dhabi. We left our home in Houston two days earlier, had spent money on hotel rooms in Dallas and San Francisco only to be told we still could not travel.

I told the Etihad agent that at this point our trip was in vain, due to fault of ours, because any resolution they could come up with would result in yet several more days of delay and would cause us to miss the wedding. I asked that I be issued a complete refund and taken back home to Houston. The Etihad counter agent told me that I needed to call the Etihad customer service number to initiate the refund process. It has been exactly three months since I initiated the refund process yet I still do not have any resolution from Etihad.

Despite countless hours on the phone with various Etihad representatives in Abu Dhabi and Manchester, including several managers, Etihad continues to refuse to confirm that I would be issued a full refund. Whenever I call Etihad to get a status update, I am given a variety of excuses, including that my case is being reviewed to determine fault (implying that I bear some fault), the issue is being reviewed by a different departments who need to provide refund approval, and a need for Etihad to resolve the issue first with American Airlines. At one point I was even told that my best chance at a resolution was to contact American Airlines as well. As a customer, I am caught in an endless circle of two airlines attempting to pass the blame. Etihad’s code share partner is not something I have any control over. I booked my flight with Etihad, paid Etihad and was directed by Etihad customer service to an American Airlines ticket counter for rebooking.

My claim is with Etihad, not American Airlines. I have been both patient and courteous in all my discussions with Etihad representatives despite the over $12,000 I am owed, the inconvenience of standing at the Dallas airport ticket counter for 6 hours, flying to San Francisco for what turned out to be no reason, the additional expenses incurred in Dallas and San Francisco and the countless hours of my time spent trying to resolve the issue I think I would be justified in thinking that Etihad simply wants to frustrate me to the point that I would just go away and give up my claim. I can assure you this will not happen.

It is really unfortunate that the reader has been forced to go through this incompetence with both Etihad and American Airlines. The resolution ultimately lies with the ticketing airline that in this case is Etihad.

Etihad Airways was correct that American Airlines should have rebooked the passengers and correctly reissued the tickets. There is nothing, however, that would have prevented Etihad to do this.

There is very little in terms of customer service is any of the Middle Eastern airlines (Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways). As long as everything runs smoothly, the experience is usually good. If there are unforeseen problems such as what the reader is experiences here, they are just trying to pass the buck from one despartment to another. There is not a strong customer service culture (as is typical of Gulf companies in general) and usually the ones with loudest voices are taken care of.

This also clearly illustrates why there should be legislation in the United States for stronger air passenger right.

The reader should try to contest this charge with their credit card company again. They didn’t get the service they paid for.

Here’s what I would do:

1. Try to contest the charge again.

2. Open a case with the Attorney General of Texas against both the credit card company used to pay for this ticket (the reader didn’t get the product they paid for) and Etihad Airways.

3. Open two cases with the DOT (access here); one against the American Airlines that failed to properly reissue the tickets and another one against the Etihad Airways with whom the ultimate responsibility lies.

If all of these fail:

4. Hire an attorney to send a strongly worded letter to Etihad Airways.

I wouldn’t bother with the BBB because they merely just forward your complaint to Etihad/American and they have absolutely zero authority to fix things. They merely publish ratings based on how companies response to complaints.

Conclusion

It is really unfortunate that none of these Middle Eastern airlines are able to take ownership when something goes wrong. I have had somewhat similar issues as the reader when Emirates downgraded me several times from paid F to C and promises made were not kept. It is like banging your head against the wall how arrogant they can be, and nobody takes ownership of the issue to resolve it.

Part of the problem is that many of the employees dealing with these issues in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha are imported from low wage countries and afraid of doing anything that could remotely get them into trouble. They also cannot or are not allowed to think outside of the box. It is just easier to send the case to some other department.

The United States should introduce stronger consumer protection laws ala EU’s EC 261/2004. It is unfortunately that many passengers let these things slip when the amount in question is just in the hundreds.

I hope that the reader keeps us all informed how this issue ends up solved.

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