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Help! I can’t use my airline credit

She changes her plans to fly from Miami to South Bend, Ind., on ATA. But when Jane Marie Russell tries to rebook her flights through her online travel agent, Orbitz, she's in for a shock: ATA no longer flies out of Miami. Her only choice is an inconvenient flight from Orlando to Chicago. Is a refund in order?
/ Source: Tripso.com

She changes her plans to fly from Miami to South Bend, Ind., on ATA. But when Jane Marie Russell tries to rebook her flights through her online travel agent, Orbitz, she's in for a shock: ATA no longer flies out of Miami. Her only choice is an inconvenient flight from Orlando to Chicago. Is a refund in order?

Q: I booked a nonrefundable roundtrip flight from Miami to South Bend, Ind., on ATA for $384.89 last year. I changed my plans and was told that I could get credit on another ATA flight, as long as it was booked within a year.

Unfortunately, ATA no longer flies to Miami. I have been waiting since last year to use my credit, hoping to find a different routing that would help me. But ATA doesn’t even fly out of Fort Lauderdale, another nearby airport.

I asked if I could get credit on Southwest Airlines, with which ATA has a code-sharing partnership. But I can’t seem to get around Orbitz.

According to the online travel agency, the new reservation must be in my name and only on ATA, not another carrier. My credit is with ATA, not Orbitz; nevertheless, Orbitz insists that I have to book the new tickets through it - not ATA.

I am an exchange student in Santiago, Chile, this semester. So my only option is to call Orbitz, which costs 20 cents a minute. That may not sound like a lot, but it is when you are on hold for more than 30 minutes.

After several phone calls, Orbitz finally offered to apply the credit on an ATA flight from Orlando to Chicago. But that means I would have to fly from Miami to Orlando and then buy another ticket from Chicago to South Bend. There has to be an easier way.

— Jane Marie Russell, Miami

A: When an airline offers you a credit for a future flight, it’s natural to assume that the carrier will continue to offer service to your city.

But the last few months have taught all of us that when it comes to the airlines, there is no such thing as a sure thing. Bankruptcies and near-bankruptcies have forced carriers to cut routes — leaving hundreds, and possibly thousands of passengers with the same dilemma as yours.

You did the right thing by starting with your online travel agency. Orbitz charged you a fee to act as your intermediary for the ATA reservation, and that means it has a responsibility to act as your agent and advocate for you so that you can find a way to use the ticket.

I’m as disappointed as you are by your Orbitz experience. At the very least, someone from Orbitz should have called you back so that you didn’t have to incur a phone bill. Instead, the agency gave you a somewhat heartless, by-the-book answer.

I approached both ATA and Orbitz with your problem. Before Orbitz had a chance to respond, I heard back from Michelle Foley at ATA, who agreed to review your case.

“When Ms. Russell tried to use her credit to book future travel on ATA, she was unable to find a route compatible with her needs,” she said. “As she did not fly the original booking by her own choice, ATA is not obligated to provide compensation in this matter.”

ATA is correct. A careful reading of its contract of carriage - the agreement between you and the airline — shows that it has done everything that it should.

You could have avoided this situation by redeeming your credit for tickets as soon as possible after changing your plans. You never want to be in a situation where an airline owes you money. (If you don’t believe me, I can put you in touch with some creditors of TWA, Pan Am or even the old US Airways, before it was assimilated into America West.)

Fortunately, ATA also acknowledged that yours was a “unique set of circumstances” and agreed to offer you a full refund.

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 or visit his . Your question may be published in a future story. Want to sound off about a story? Try visiting .