By Travel columnist

American Airlines canceled her flight to Cozumel, but it is only offering vouchers for the $2,000 she spent for her tickets. Margaret Anderson wants a refund. Her online travel agency says she's entitled to one under "Rule 240." But is she?

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Q: My American Airlines flight to Cozumel later this month has been canceled because of damage from Hurricane Wilma. When I called American Airlines, the agent said I would be able to obtain a travel voucher, but not a refund.

I booked the flight through Expedia. Expedia said I should be able to obtain a refund under Rule 240, but American has refused to issue a refund even though its hurricane policy seems to guarantee one.

I will likely reschedule this trip for January, but I will not be leaving from the same city. I purchased tickets from Philadelphia because I was going to be in Philadelphia for Christmas. But I live in Minnesota, and the flights to Cozumel from Minneapolis are on a different airline.

I bought tickets for four people. I do not have much use for a $2,000 credit from American Airlines. Can you help me get a refund?

— Margaret Anderson,Minneapolis, Minn.

A: I’m a little confused. You say American Airlines canceled your flight because of damage from Hurricane Wilma, yet American is currently operating flights into and out of Cozumel on a normal schedule. Something else must be going on. I’ll get to that in a second.

First let’s talk about “Rule 240.” Rule 240 is the regulation typically cited in cases of mechanical delay or cancellation. But check out American Airlines’ contract (which is available on its Web site) and you’ll see that delays and cancellations aren’t covered by Rule 240 — in fact, there is no Rule 240 — but rather a Rule 18. If you demand that American “240” you, which is what some travel experts would recommend, you’ll get absolutely nowhere.

But I don’t think that’s the issue. The problem, I think, is that your flight did not experience a delay or a cancellation, but rather a schedule change, which is governed by Rule 3. Chances are, you’ve been asking for the wrong thing.

In fact, the more I look at your case, the more I think you’ve been given a planeload of misinformation. Who told you that American’s hurricane policy applied? I can’t see how it would, since refunds are normally given only to customers whose flights have been directly affected by a hurricane. You weren’t flying during the hurricane, and there was no damage to the airport, so I asked American Airlines spokesman Tim Wagner if there had been a schedule change.

Wagner confirmed that the airline had made some adjustments to its schedule after Hurricane Wilma. He said there was a “minor discrepancy” because of a schedule change that happens at this time of year. Airlines do change their schedules, adding flights or dropping them, to meet seasonal demand. My guess is that your flight was cancelled because the seasonal uptick in demand that American had predicted for the Cozumel market didn’t materialize after the hurricane.

That’s good news for you, because when an airline makes this sort of schedule change, you have the option of rebooking on another flight of your liking or taking a full refund. You were correct to refuse the vouchers. American is refunding the entire amount of your purchase.

Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman and a nationally syndicated columnist who specializes in solving your travel problems. Got a trip that needs fixing? Send him a note or visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story. Want to sound off about a story? Try visiting Elliott's forum.


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