Travel Troubleshooter: American owes refunds for canceled flights

Q: I reserved airfare last week from Tel Aviv to Las Vegas via American Airlines' website, and within 24 hours I called to cancel. An agent told me that since it was within 24 hours, I could cancel the ticket and I would "very likely" receive a refund.

Based on this advice, I canceled the ticket and booked a ticket with slightly different dates. My mother is just recovering from cancer and I was forced to cancel the second ticket again within 24 hours.

I did so based on the reservations agent's advice that since I had done so within 24 hours I would likely be OK in receiving a refund. I have not received a refund on either of the tickets yet and I'm starting to get worried. Can you help? - - Simcha Edward Margolis, Indianapolis

A: American should have refunded both tickets promptly. Not "very likely." Definitely.

Why? The Department of Transportation requires airlines to offer full refunds on tickets canceled within 24 hours or the ability to "hold" a reservation for 24 hours.

Until April 1, American offered the "hold" option, but it wasn't well-disclosed and it was the only major airline to have a "hold" instead of a 24­hour refund. So a lot of passengers booked a ticket through American believing they could cancel within 24 hours, but then found they couldn't.

(Some frequent fliers liked the "hold" option, but they were in the minority.)

The agent you spoke with should have told you the reservations could be canceled so long as you did it within 24 hours. You can do that as often as you like, by the way. Book, cancel, repeat. The refund should be fast and painless.

What went wrong here? It's hard to say. You made your reservations after April 1, so the refund should have been automatic. Maybe the agent was confused and failed to cancel your tickets as requested.

But this merits repeating: If you cancel within 24 hours, you get a refund. Full stop.

How long should a refund take? The government regulates that, too, at least when it comes to airlines. When a refund is due, the airline must forward a credit to your card company within seven business days after receiving a complete refund application, according to the government. According to the government, American was overdue on both refunds.

I love the resolution of your case. You grabbed the customer service contacts for American from my consumer advocacy site (elliott.org/company­contacts/american) and emailed one of the managers. Just to be safe, you also disputed the charges on your credit card.

Both charges were promptly refunded.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the author of "How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler." You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org, and email him at chris@elliott.org