Linda Burbank / USA Today
Question: My dad was late to the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport due to a terrible accident on Highway 121. He arrived at the counter 30 minutes before his American Airlines flight to Tokyo was to depart. He tried to self-check but the system forced him to talk to a person at the counter.
He was told he needed to reschedule to a later flight from Dallas to Japan. The American agent told him there would be a $250 rescheduling fee. That was understandable because it was a non-refundable ticket. Then they tacked on a $1,000 fare difference, so the additional $1,250 (plus tax) ended up costing about 150% of the original ticket. Even the American ticket counter agent was stunned.
There were additional empty seats on that flight. I'm sure there were quite a number of people who missed their flights due to the accident right outside the airport. I have tried to contact American through its online system, e-mail, Twitter and Facebook to no avail.
-- Anthony Sung, Plano Texas
Answer: Sung's father was stuck in snarled traffic on the way to the airport, and appeared to be a candidate for what's colloquially known as the "flat-tire rule." The flat-tire rule is a longstanding practice of some airlines that allows passengers who miss flights due to circumstances outside their control to take the next available flight, providing space is available, with additional fees and fares waived.
The specifics vary by carrier, and not all airlines extend this courtesy. In general, passengers must notify the airline of the issue within two hours after the flight's departure time—preferably in person, at the airport. The decision to extend the flat-tire rule, or two-hour rule as it may be called, is usually left to the discretion of agents.
Since I last wrote about the flat-tire rule, American has codified its discretionary procedure to a standard policy. Its late arrival standby policy, as it's now known, allows late passengers who arrive at the airport—not call—no more than two hours after their scheduled flights to wait on standby for the next available flight without fees or fare increases. Passengers who show up more than two hours late are on the hook for fare increases. The rule applies as long as the original flight was not the last scheduled flight of the day; the goodwill gesture doesn't roll over onto the next day.
"We make every effort to accommodate people on the same day they travel," says American representative Matt Miller.
These late passengers don't have confirmed seats, but rather must wait to see if there's space available. They can, however, pay a $75 fee to move from the standby list to a confirmed seat without paying a fare increase, if seats are available, on domestic routes.
Therein lies the important hitch that ensnared Sung's father: American doesn't allow standby travel for international flights, so the late arrival standby policy simply didn't apply to his situation.
"The previous 'flat-tire rule' didn't deal with international flights either," notes Miller.
Sung's father had to pay a change fee as well as the fare difference for his new flight, and that difference was high because it was for a walk-up fare versus one that had been purchased months in advance, according to Miller.
The big price jump was a shock, and was especially unpalatable since Sung's father's flight hadn't even departed when he finally made it out of traffic and to the counter. His new flight departed just one hour and 10 minutes later than his original one. But American requires passengers flying internationally to check in at least 60 minutes before departure time, with some exceptions, and to be at the gate at least 30 minutes ahead of time. Sung was long past that deadline when he finally made it off the highway and to the check-in counter.
American went by the book in applying its rules, and did not refund Sung's father's additional charges.
"Unfortunately we weren't able to do anything else in this scenario," says Miller.
Sung's father's expensive run-in with with Dallas gridlock serves as a word of warning for international travelers. Always allow extra time to get to the airport, beyond what the airline requires and more than you think you'll need. If you find yourself with extra time in the terminal after all, USA TODAY's airport columnist Harriet Baskas can help you while the hours away.
How can you avoid trouble?
• Learn about check-in time requirements for the airline you're flying, airport you're headed to, and whether there are additional timelines specific to your destination. American suggests its international passengers arrive two hours before their flights, but the absolute minimum is 60 minutes, unless you're headed to Buenos Aires, in which case it's 75 minutes. That 15 minute difference could be a dealbreaker if you're running late.
• Don't book the last flight of the day; that limits your options in case you miss your flight, or if your flight is delayed or cancelled.
• If you're going to miss your flight, contact the airline as quickly as possible. You can call the carrier to ensure your passenger record is noted and so it doesn't label you a no show and cancel your entire itinerary—that could be a major hassle on multi-leg trips. Then get to the airport as quickly as possible, since you'll need to present yourself and be ready to fly within two hours of your original flight time.
• Consider travel insurance for international flights, when the stakes are higher in terms of fares and replacement ticket costs.