After brother’s death, where’s my airfare refund?

Jorg Hackemann /
Jorg Hackemann /
After Irene Reitman’s brother passes away, she cancels her trip to Las Vegas. But American Airlines won’t refund her fare. Why not?

Question: My husband and I were recently scheduled to fly from Chicago to Las Vegas on American Airlines. Unfortunately, my brother died shortly before we left, and we canceled our non-refundable tickets.

I subsequently noticed on the American website that non-refundable tickets could be refunded due to a death in the immediate family. I called the refund services desk for many days and could never get through to a real person. The message on this phone was “Due to circumstances beyond our control, we can’t answer the phone right now, call back later.”

I called for three days and received the same response. There was no opportunity to leave a message.

I sent American Airlines two e-mails and received no replies. I faxed them a letter with a copy of the obituary — again, no reply. I sent a letter to the customer relations office in Dallas, and again, no reply.

I would like a complete refund of my $705 airfare, but no one will talk to me. It’s very frustrating not to be able to talk to a person. I hope you can help. — Irene Reitman, Lincolnwood, Ill.

Answer: My condolences on your loss. American should have answered the phone the first time you called, instead of sending you through a bureaucratic maze during this difficult time.

American’s policy on the death of a passenger, immediate family member, or traveling companion, is spelled out on its website. At the time you booked your ticket, it said a change fee may be waived or the ticket refunded, provided a copy of the death certificate is presented to American Airlines.

The “refund” would be in the form of a nonrefundable transportation voucher that may be used for future travel on American Airlines only. (Only dead passengers can get full refunds, which go to their estate.)

In other words, American will let you miss your flight because of a death in the family, but if you send it a death certificate, it will offer you a voucher. If you’re a “no show” without proof of the death, you would lose the value of your ticket.

If you had emailed or faxed your brother’s death certificate, along with your record locator, to the airline, I think you might have received the promised voucher. But it’s difficult to know. The airline was operating under bankruptcy protection at the time this happened, and things have a way of slipping through the cracks when a company is trying to restructure.

You could have tried two other avenues. The first is an appeal to an American executive. I list their names and email addresses on my consumer advocacy website. The second would be filing a dispute with your credit card company, which might have succeeded if you could show that the airline isn’t following its own rules.

Fortunately, none of that was necessary. I contacted American on your behalf. A representative got in touch with you immediately and sent you a voucher for $705.

Should airlines refund a nonrefundable ticket when a close relative dies?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Justin

    Agreed. “May” still requires the OP be given chance at recovery. AA’s inability to respond because of an ongoing bankruptcy furthers the OP’s plight of a credit card dispute.

    All and all good travel insurance can prevent headaches. Death is hard to gauge unless a person is terminal. Health is easier to predict. Saving a few bucks can become costly if one misjudges the situation.

    Personally, I travel with insurance. Between two trips to the Emergency Room, Dozens of Hospital Visits, and I’m a walking disaster. All within the last 6 months. Enough said.

  • Carver Clark Farrow


    There is a prohibition against illusory promises in a contract. Or as an old law partner said, promising the sleeves from his vest. The question is, under what terms will AA grant the request. In such a scenario, AA will still be bound by its own internal and customary procedures. It is unlikely that AA will have complete discretion even through it says “may”. So, odds are, AA is still under a legal obligation to provide the voucher.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Yes, see my reply to your previous post

  • MarkKelling

    Airline refund/voucher systems just don’t make sense most of the time.

    On a recent trip on UA, the flight was cancelled due to weather issues. UA offered either to rebook on a future flight with no change fee (not the next flight, which is an important distinction) or a full refund to original source of payment. I looked at when I would be able to make the trip and saw that the next opportunity was priced $150 less than the cancelled flight. If I rebooked, I would not get the excess $150 refunded, so I took the full refund and booked the new flights saving $150. IF the flight would have cost $150 more, I would have had to pay UA that extra amount. Doesn’t sound fair to me, yet airlines still wonder why their passengers are not happy.

  • Thoroughlyamused

    It’s questionable whether or not they actually breached contract. The only contract they are bound is the COC. While the info on their website is as I stated above, it’s not included in the COC. Many airlines masquerade this as a “Customer Service commitment”, which, as Chris said in another article, is a non–binding promise.

    Of course the OP would prefer a cash refund. Who wouldn’t? But a cash refund is out of the question and she is not entitled to it. And by filing a CC dispute, if you lose, the company is less willing to work with you. I should know. I used to deal with CDW disputes as a manager. I was more than willing to work with the customer in these situations, but if they insisted on filing a CC dispute to get ALL their money back, I would simply send the CC company the contract showing where the customer signed accepting the charge. 9 times out of 10, I would win the dispute, and from that point I would be far less willing to work with the customer. Filing a CC dispute should always be a LAST resort. Especially since a company losing a credit card dispute just means they’ll pursue getting the $$ in other means. That can mean a collection agency or being banned from doing business with said company ever again.

  • Justin

    My experience with disputing charges is the complete opposite. I’ve had nothing but luck 9 out of 10 times. All depends upon the company and whether or not their argument holds water. I try to dispute religiously giving companies fair opportunity to resolve a problem.

    Note: Fair meaning if I can’t reach someone after multiple attempts, I move to Plan B.

    Condolences to the OP since loss of a family member is difficult. The OP never mentioned travel insurance. Whether or not a policy is beneficial depends upon circumstance. If OP travels again and voucher isn’t restrictive, all good.

    Best of luck.

  • Jason Hanna

    I assume that you meant AND their immediate family that was scheduled to travel with them?

    If what you’re saying is that my brother and I are on the same flight/itenerary, and he dies.. His estate should get (Or whoever bought the ticket, in case I was paying for his flight) a refund AND I should get a refund on my ticket as well?

    I’d have a hard time disagreeing with you in that case.

    Now, let’s say I am traveling.. Brother not with me.. He passes away 2 days before my flight.. I’ve got to re-arrange to get to him.. In that case, I believe you are saying that I should probably get the voucher and pay change fees?

    I would agree with that as well… With the exception that, if it’s an immediate family member.. From a compassion standpoint ,i’d say I would probably expect the airline to waive the fees. i’d think the airline SHOULD do that.. Whether they would is another story.You do have a good point about travel insurance in that case.. That is what travel insurance is for. Except for the fact that it seems there’s an equal number of stories on here where it won’t pay out. Which is sort of irrelevant and i’m rambling at this point, but..

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Perhaps one of the TAs could opine, but I would have thought that you would also have had the option of traveling on the next available flight. Is it possible that that was not communicated properly?

  • Bill___A

    They should either always do it or never do it. Then people know what to expect.

  • DReinig

    Why is the background on this page blue? It refreshed the page and it’s still blue. Using IE 9.

  • Nadia

    The airline tickets might have been purchased 10 months before the flight-would the credit card really take that dispute seriously, if that was the case?

  • Lindabator

    IF you are travelling and a death in the immediate family comes up, with the proper documentation, they DO offer the option of changing the ticket without a fee, but you may have to pay a difference in fares.

  • Lindabator

    Weather is considered an act of god, and they are required to do one of the following: refund the ticket — waive the fees to get you out within the next 7 days (NOT next available) — waive the fees and allow a change in location (Orlando now instead of Miami). And you are NOT entitled to hotel, meals or transportation (ground). They will NOT allow you to change to any flight, and although they may waive the change fee, should you choose to fly out on a flight which is more expensive, you would need to pay the difference.

  • Lindabator

    WEATHER cancellations do NOT require them to put you on next available flight (they actually have a 7 day window they can play with). And they do try everything they can to either refund the fare or get you re-accommodated as soon as they can, even if it means trying a different airport.

  • Naoma Foreman

    INSURE> INSURE. INSURE. Then you are covered for this sort of matter.

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