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Airline grounded, miles gone

After she cashes in 100,000 hard-earned award points for a vacation in Mexico, Rachel Cohen-Mazouz’ airline is grounded by aviation officials. But, if she cancels her getaway, can she get her miles back? Her bank says “no,” but her airline still isn’t flying. Who’s right?
/ Source: Tribune Media Services

Q: I recently redeemed 100,000 miles that I earned through my Bank of America Visa for a timeshare vacation in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. We used the miles to pay for two airline tickets on Aero California, a low-cost Mexican airline.

Just after I made the reservation, Mexican aviation officials suspended operations at Aero California, after determining that the carrier failed to meet safety standards. I would be terrified to put my life in its hands, and am trying to cancel my tickets.

I asked Bank of America to refund my miles, but it refuses. The airline insists it will fly, but it keeps changing the date when it will be cleared for takeoff again.

We’ve already lost $120 for our canceled timeshare. Now we are about to lose the rest. Can you save our vacation?
— Rachel Cohen-Mazouz, Beverly Hills, Calif.

A: When an airline stops flying, you should be able to get a refund for your tickets. But can you also recover your frequent flier miles?

Airlines regard award tickets differently than they do regular tickets. Strictly speaking, a seat that is paid for with miles has no cash value — it’s basically a seat that would have gone unused, according to the airline.

If these were real airline miles that you tried to cash in, you’d probably be out of luck. If the airline isn’t flying, you’re not going on vacation.

But these weren’t real airline miles. They were loyalty points given through your bank. Even though these rewards are often referred to as “miles,” they work in a fundamentally different way. A credit card company will typically buy the ticket on your behalf, acting as your travel agent.

In other words, these are real tickets with a cash value.

So it isn’t up to Aero California, but to your bank, to fix your problem. And Bank of America’s terms and conditions say the airline tickets are nonrefundable and non-changeable.

But there are exceptions. When you called to request a refund, a customer service representative told you that your miles could be credited back to you in a case of serious illness or death. I guess that rule doesn’t apply to the airline you’re flying on, though.

When I contacted the bank on your behalf, it told me that its rules are flexible. Bank of America does its best to ensure the airline it picks is flight-worthy. If, for some reason, the carrier is grounded, then it will try to rebook your flight on another airline.

In your case, Aero California hadn’t officially canceled your flight yet (the airline recently resumed operations after being grounded for several weeks). Even so, a Bank of America spokeswoman has promised to purchase new tickets for you when you’re ready to take your next vacation and they’ve refunded all of your points.

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