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New flight, no ticket

When Paige Gibson’s flight to Rome is rescheduled, her airline neglects to send her a paper ticket for one leg of the journey. As a result, she has to pay an additional $566 to fly. Now the carrier is balking at a refund. Will she ever see that money again?
/ Source: Tribune Media Services

Q: I recently redeemed my American Airlines miles to fly to Rome with my nieces. The original flight included a return leg on Swiss International Air Lines, for which I received paper tickets.

Two weeks before our departure, American contacted me and said it needed to rebook me because of a scheduling change. My new itinerary had me flying on SN Brussels Airlines instead of Swiss. I asked if I needed new paper tickets and was told “no.”

So when we arrived at the airport in Rome, we were surprised to learn that SN Brussels Airlines didn’t have tickets for any of us. They tried to call and telex American but couldn’t reach anyone.

I was told the award tickets — one for me and one for my niece — would be honored, but that we needed to pay an additional $566 for the other ticket that we’d bought, but for which we didn’t have a paper ticket.

When I got home, I requested a refund from American. The airline said it would need to contact SN Brussels Airlines to see if it could get its money back. It has now been months, and as you can guess, there’s been no refund. American says that I could be out of luck. Can you help?
— Paige Gibson, Austin, Texas

A: American Airlines should have sent you valid tickets for your trip to Rome. When it failed to, the least it could have done was to issue a prompt refund. Instead, it offered excuses and then subjected you to a lengthy wait.

The problem, as you point out, is the paper ticket. Some airlines still require them, and if you lose the tickets, you either have to pay a hefty penalty or buy entirely new tickets.

If it’s any consolation, most airlines will completely switch to electronic tickets by the end of 2007 (at least that’s the goal of the International Air Transport Association, the governing body that creates regulation for international air transport). Unfortunately, that’s about a year too late for you.

How could this have been prevented? Calling the airline to confirm a flight — not just checking the flight status online — would have easily revealed this ticketing error in time for American to set things straight. Remember to phone the actual airline that is flying the route, not the so-called “codeshare” partner through which you may have made your flight reservations.

For a complex itinerary like yours, you might also consider using a qualified travel agent when you buy a ticket. Although you’ll pay a booking fee, your travel adviser will make sure you have all the necessary paperwork.

Here’s the thing that baffles me, though: SN Brussels Airlines allowed you to use the award tickets but not the one that you paid for. It’s usually the other way around.

I contacted American Airlines on your behalf, and after reviewing your case, it found that it should have issued new paper tickets for your SN Brussels Airlines flight. American processed an immediate refund of $566.

Christopher Elliot is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. E-mail him at, or troubleshoot your trip through his Web site,