American Airlines is telling employees to think twice before rebooking stranded customers on rival airlines, and regular economy-class passengers are the most likely to suffer when there are long delays or canceled flights.
A new policy at American directs airport agents not to rebook economy passengers on competing airlines - with no stated limit on how long they must wait for a seat on another American flight. A manager can make exceptions in a few cases, such as people flying to a wedding or funeral and those who would be stranded overnight with no hotel room.
Agents can still put economy passengers on American's international partner airlines, but that won't help customers flying within the U.S.
By contrast, American told agents in late September to help the airline's best customers get to their destinations quickly, even if it means putting them on Delta or United.
Elite-level members of American's frequent-flyer program and people who bought a first-class or business-class ticket can be booked on another airline if they face a delay of at least five hours - and even sooner for the highest level of elite customers.
The policy highlights the growing divide between airlines' best customers and everyone else. It also shows how, for many travelers, flying on the biggest airlines is becoming more like taking a discount airline, with cramped planes, fewer perks and more extra fees.
Many of the largest and oldest airlines have agreements to put passengers on one another's flights when there are long delays or cancellations. American, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines all have alliances with other global carriers and so-called interline agreements with each other. Airlines pay for such transfers, but at discounted fares.
Often, however, low-cost competitors including Southwest, JetBlue, Spirit and Frontier lack those deals. Their passengers are at greater risk of being stranded for a long time if the airline encounters a mechanical breakdown, a computer outage or bad weather.
Even though few travelers know about airline alliances and even fewer have heard of interline agreements, those rebooking options can make the big airlines much better than their smaller brethren when things go wrong.
Airlines have been putting displaced customers on other carriers for decades, but American, the world's biggest airline, never had a written policy.
Some of American's key airports including Dallas-Fort Worth and Chicago O'Hare see frequent long delays and cancellations because of storms. In July, American and regional affiliate American Eagle canceled 5,422 flights, according to the most recent government figures. That was the second highest rate in the industry behind Frontier Airlines, and compared with 2,394 cancellations at United and United Express and 1,154 at Delta and Delta Connection. The lopsided numbers suggest that American could be spending more than Delta and United to accommodate stranded passengers.
American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein said managers will have authority to make exceptions on a case-by-case basis. He said Delta and United have similar rules.
American made its instructions to agents available to The Associated Press. Delta made a portion of its guidelines available, and they do not appear biased against transferring economy passengers to another carrier. Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant said agents are told to try to rebook customers on partner airlines, but they can send anyone, including economy passengers, to American or United.
United Airlines declined to provide its guidelines to the AP, but spokeswoman Maddie King described restrictions that were updated last year and seem similar to American's. She said economy customers can be placed on a non-partner airline like American or Delta if they would otherwise be stranded overnight and the delay was United's fault. She said if the passenger is going to a big event like a wedding, "our employees are always empowered to make the right decision for our customers."
The new American policy was first reported by Gary Leff on his blog, View from the Wing. In an interview, he said the ability to be transferred to another airline has always been one of the big advantages of traveling on those large carriers instead of a budget airline. This will narrow that gap, he said.
"We are going to have to wait and see what it looks like in practice. It comes down to how individual employees take this new policy," Leff said. As for customers who need help getting to their destination on time, "You've got to convince someone to do it for you," he said.
None of the three leading U.S. airlines would say how often they pay to put a passenger on another carrier's flight, so it is unclear how many people will be affected.
"It may be the kind of thing that customers don't notice until they need it," Leff said.