Airline tells hospitalized passenger “people pretend to be sick all the time”

When Rela Geffen was hospitalized after suffering from congestive heart failure recently, she assumed her airline would take care of her. She was in Georgia on a business trip, but she’d paid an extra $19 for trip interruption insurance on her US Airways tickets.

And this is one of those times when I’m happy to say that the insurance came through for her. US Airways charged her a $125 change fee and a fare difference to fly back to Philadelphia a few days after her originally-scheduled flight, plus a $25 fee for making the change by phone, and her insurance picked up the tab.

“They were great and paid the $325 promptly after I returned home,” she says.

But that wasn’t the problem.

Her cardiologist told her she could only travel if she was accompanied by someone, so she asked her son to fly down on US Airways to help her get back home. But walk-up fares can be pricey, and his would set him back $677.

I was very upset. I asked if there wasn’t a special accommodation for illness or hardship cases.

The representative said — in not a very nice tone — that “people pretend to be sick all the time”.

She then went on to tell me to have my son complain to customer service with documentation after we got home.

What could I do? I had to get home and I had to be accompanied – so I paid.

After Geffen returned to Philadelphia, she sent US Airways all the documentation, including her son’s ticket and a note from her cardiologist saying that she needed to be accompanied.

The response from US Airways? A form letter saying sorry, there’s nothing we can do.

“I feel that the airline took unfair advantage of my situation,” she says.

In a sense, she’s absolutely right. Like other airlines US Airways prices its tickets to extract the most money from people who travel at the last minute. It assumes — often incorrectly — that these passengers are business travelers on an expense account. Cost-conscious leisure travelers, on the other hand, buy their tickets two weeks in advance and stay over a Saturday night, they assume.

Airlines will bend these rules on occasion, but it really has to be a special circumstance, like the death of a relative or a change in military orders.

On the other hand, US Airways wasn’t her only option. She and her son might have been able to discard her return ticket and buy a new, cheaper ticket on a different airline. But in the heat of the moment, and when you’re being your own travel agent and you’re hospitalized, you don’t necessarily think about all of your options.

Point is, US Airways didn’t have to do anything for her son. But maybe it should have.

I’m most troubled about Geffen’s exchange with the US Airways reservations agent. Suggesting to someone who is hospitalized that she might be pretending to be sick is really insensitive. I’m sure the agent had heard it all before — and yes, passengers do try to get around the system because the system can be unfair.

Her son wasn’t trying to get to Atlanta to sign a million-dollar business deal. He was coming to take his recovering mother back home.

But I’m on the fence about mediating her case, and here’s why: Technically, US Airways was following its own rules. I can imagine the same scenario repeating itself at any one of the legacy airlines. It is under absolutely no obligation to help Geffen, at least according to the terms of her purchase.

Cases like this really depress me. If the US Airways agent had only been a little more compassionate and asked a supervisor to help a passenger in need, then I wouldn’t be struggling with what to do next.

(Site: resp 14/Flickr)

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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  • CamelsAndChocolate

    US Air is the worst. If it were a more reputable airline, I would give them the benefit of the doubt, but sadly this seems to be the norm with this particular company.

  • TexanPatriot1

    Help, not to get a refund for the  young man…but to extract the APOLOGY for the behavior the airline’s representatives showed…then they can give back some of the money as a sincere apology.

  • Fly, Icarus, Fly

    Would it have been nice for the airline to offer her a reduced fare? Yes. Should the CS agent just stuck to the facts and kept her mouth shut? Absolutely. Should the OP use Chris to try and get something back from the airline? No. Stuff happens. And while it’s nice to receive kindness, in this case, I don’t think kindness can be demanded. Good on her for having insurance that actually worked. Glad that she made it back OK and is hopefully getting some rest…

  • Jeremy

    If the person accompanying the travel was medically necessary, I think Ms. Geffen should look into being reimbursed by the trip insurance or her medical insurance.  I really don’t see why the extra traveler should be US Airways’ responsibility at all.

  • sirwired

    Yes, the US Airways agent needs customer service training.  But most (though certainly not all) people that travel at the last minute don’t do so on a whim; they usually have a good reason, and I’m guessing most of them want to pay less.  For better or worse, last-minute tickets cost more, and that’s the way it is.  Sometimes, Life Happens, and it isn’t US Airways job to bail you out of it.

  • Elmo Clarity

    As has been commented several times, yes, life happens and it isn’t the 3rd party’s responsibility to bail you out.  But I also feel it is inappropriate for 3rd parties to take advantage of it too and these super high “walk up” fares airlines charges are, to me, an example of people doing just that.

  • Raven_Altosk

    I don’t know that a refund is in order, but an APOLOGY for the absolutely rude and disrespectful behavior of the agent definitely is!

  • christineroeske

    An apology and partial refund. I seriously doubt Geffen and her son will ever want to fly US Air again (and who can blame them) so a credit would be useless.

  • LaneB

    Whatever happened to human decency?  Last minute travelers are not always business travelers with an expense account.  I ran into a similar situation when my grandmother passed.  I just wanted to attend her funeral, not sell a kidney to do it.

    Please consider mediating her case,

  • Charlie Funk

    Include the second air ticket in the insurance claim.  The ticket purchase clearly would not have been made absent medical necessity arising from the cardiologist’s professional opinion about the need for a travel companion.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    The super cheap travel insurance policy (from Access America) that US Airways offer on its website does NOT cover this situationcondition.  If the OP had purchased a “real” travel insurance policy from a site such as;; etc., it would have been covered.  You can’t spend $ 19 for travel insurance coverage and expect that it will cover everything.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    I agree.  I don’t see why it is the responsibility of US Airways to assume the risks of the OP.  As I posted earlier, the super cheap travel insurance policy (from Access America) that US Airways offer on its website does NOT cover this situationcondition.  If the OP had purchased a “real” travel insurance policy from a site such as;; etc., it would have been covered.  You can’t spend $ 19 for travel insurance coverage and expect that it will cover everything.

  • $16635417

    It’s been a long time since I used a bereavement fare, but I recall them being used for medical emergencies as well. Someone else may be able to help out with the specifics, but I recall the fare being half of the unrestricted fare. Looking at PHL-ATL, the unrestricted Y fare is $776.80…ONE a round trip would be roughly double. 
    The OP mentioned a fare of $677 RT, so now, as is often the case, there is a cheaper fare in the market. If my memory on how the emergency fares worked is correct, there would be no real basis for mediating on fare.

    It sounds like the facts the USAir rep was relaying were correct, but, yes the tone, as described by the OP is troubling. I don’t know if I would mediate however. You may get a credit or refund to “make the problem go away”, but I highly doubt it would truly solve anything. 

    If anyone has any other recollection on how bereavement/medical emergency fares were calculated, please correct me!

  • scapel

    I would think that the insurance ought to be filed for the cost of the ticket for the son. Remember to always wait until the end of a trip to file any insurance claim, because usually there is only one claim and it shouild include all the expenses related to the incident.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    “I was very upset. I asked if there wasn’t a special accommodation for illness or hardship cases.  The representative said — in not a very nice tone — that “people pretend to be sick all the time”.  She then went on to tell me to have my son complain to customer service with documentation after we got home.”
    Maybe the US CSR was rude, wasn’t compassionate, etc.  Maybe the US CSR wasn’t rude, etc.  I think that it is hard for most individuals in a ‘stressful’ situation to remain objective.  I wish that the every airlines, hotels, etc. record every call and send a digital recording to the customer.
    Recently, my mother was in the hospital for two months following a massive surgery.  We were making regular trips to visit her.  We had a trip scheduled to visit her but her condition worsen and they suggested that we get there sooner than waiting for our scheduled trip in four days.
    I spoke with US Airways two different times (one time to get information about changing our reservations and one time to change our reservations) with a different CSR each time.  Both times, the CSR was polite, compassionate, etc.  They told me the process (the documentation, the mailing address, the fax number, etc.) of submitting a request (they didn’t say to complain) for a refund for the change fee and difference in fare ($ 490 per ticket). 
    After we were there for two days, her mental state changed where she wasn’t able to recognize family, etc.  We did spend a week with her before she went into the hospital for the operation.  We spoke with her on a daily basis.  We made weekend trips.  My wife spent two weeks with her after the operation.  Even if the change fee wasn’t refunded, it was priceless to have those two days.
    Again, my experience with US Airways was different than the OP.

  • Crissy

    While it’s a shame the OP was treated that way and the agent could use a training refresher.  And it’s not nice of airlines to charge higher fees because you’re booking last minute.  But it’s also not fair that I book airfare one day and the price might go down the next day or a week later.  There’s a lot of solutions to the wacky ticketing pricing, but that doesn’t mean they’re good for consumers either.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    Air Canada, AirTran, Southwest Airlines, JetBlue, US Airways and Virgin America do not offer bereavement, compassion or emergency fares.

    Delta: You must call 800-221-1212 to book.

    United: They offer 10% off the lowest available fare.

    American Airlines: The website says to call them. Their program works like this. Each route has a fixed, reduced price and customers are allowed to change their flight as much as needed.

    Continental Airlines: Continental offered a sliding scale of discounts on bereavement fares. You can save 5% on round-trip tickets up to $499, 10% on round-trip tickets up to $999, and 20% on round-trip tickets $1,000 and over.

    The above information was from a travel blog published in February 2010.

  • Poley King

    This predicament is only covered if one has Medical Evacuation coverage. Trip interruption does not cover these things. She’s on her own.

    People in the world can come across as rude it doesn’t mean we should start demanding to get compensation. Can one take someone to court for being rude? Of course not. Why should this be any different

  • backprop

    Sorry, I think the little song and dance about the rude representative was probably tweaked a bit for sympathy.  It simply doesn’t have the ring of truth. 

    “Do you offer a hardship fare?”

    “People pretend to be sick all the time.”

    That simply does not follow and it is likely that, if it was said, that there was a lot more said by this OP.

    Although I don’t think you should mediate the case – what is there to mediate? – this is one of those cases where it would be nice to see if CSR was really rude.  It would be really interesting to see who should be shamed – USAir or the customer for fabricating or enhancing a presumed conversation.

  • TouchyFeely

    “I feel that the airline took unfair advantage of my situation,” she says.

    What unfair advantage?  They just followed their own rules.  I don’t see how the OP could have a more “entitled” attitude.

  • TouchyFeely

    And if she was in GA on a business trip, why the heck wasn’t her company stepping up and doing the right thing?  Even if she was self employed there must be a write off for medical emergencies.

  • pablocruise

    Maybe we should use examples like this to force the airlines, particularly the legacy carriers, to examine their fare structures and come up with a pricing model that is less complicated, more fair to the consumer and actually allows for profitability.

  • y_p_w

    The reality is that the carriers are trying to game their pricing structure to make as much as possible, while many customers are trying to game the carriers to try and pay as little as possible.  I’m probably as guilty as anyone of being the latter.

    This has been going on since eternity, and I doubt there’s any way to change that short of going to a socialist economy with government mandated price controls.

  • $16635417

    Yep. I was aware that they are becoming a thing of the past. I was just trying to recall how they were calculated. For some reason, 50% off Y sticks in my mind. I was trying to point out that IF that 50% of Y WAS the benchmark, the fare the OP received was actually lower. (But without the flexibility to change that a “compassion” fare offered.)

  • sdir

    Thank you for writing this.  While it’s possible the CSR was rude, it’s also possible the LW interpreted “no” as rude, especially in such a stressful situation.

    The part that bothers me more was that the LW was told to complain to customer service after she got home.  What was that supposed to accomplish?  The airline would’ve already received payment and there’d be no incentive to reduce the fare.  So either the CSR was rude and trying to brush the LW off, or the LW kept insisting on something that wasn’t available and finally the CSR gave up and steered her in another direction.  Guess we’ll never know.

  • severnwatcher

    I’ve had to travel a number of times for ’emergency reasons’ and never expected a break. – my emergency is not necessarily someone else’s emergency, or their fault. AT one time I traveled between BWI and MSP at least once a month while my husband at the time had cancer and was undergoing transplant treatment. I remember the most I asked for (which was refused by NW) was a better seat for him after chemotherapy on the way back to Baltimore for our final flight. (He had to sit in the very last row in a non0-reclinging seat). 

    Maybe the CSR could have been nicer (its tough to say who’s impression/perception was right), but I don’t think the airline owed her or her son a better fare.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    @ARW:  I just returned from a funeral in SC, where I had to get tickets for 3 of us from the podunk Midwest to the podunk Southeast.  Had to go via a combination of United and US Airways.  No discounts available whatsoever.  Just a FYI.

  • Miami510

    US Air is engaging in “value pricing,” something that many businesses do who are selling an evaporating commodity.  There are a finite number of seats on a flight and if a seat flies empty, the revenue is zero for that seat.  One pricing theory is to encourage last minute purchasers by lowering the price of the seat at the last minute.  This is what some theaters do. 
    Another theory is to jack up the price thinking that last minute purchasers will be desperate to have that seat and they can “sock-it-to-‘em.” 
    Maybe the high price makes up for the remaining unsold seats and perhaps it brings in more money than discounting all the unsold seats, but what they are doing now engenders a bad feeling between the public and the air carrier. 
    In the case at hand, the airline could be compassionate by putting the needy passenger high up on the discount list.  I have a feeling that last minute discounting to fill all the seats will result in more revenue for the air companies.  After all, any revenue above zero is a plus on the company’s balance sheet and they would have happier customers.

  • ViviWang

    @mikegun – I think the 50% sticks in your mind b/c it used to be 50% off for breavement or serious illness on UA.  I’ve only had occasion to use serious illness once when asking for a lower fare, it was November 1996 when my aunt was hospitalized and dying.  UA reduced their unrestricted fare by 50%.

  • TouchyFeely

    I’m sure making someone buy a ticket to fly is a far cry from the “worst.”  But maybe you’re just into over sensationalizing like Chris. 

    Chris, you may want to look into the definition of libel with reference to the wording of that headline.  First thing that jumped to my mind was “USAir really said that?”

  • y_p_w

    They’re playing a guessing game.

    For the most part, airlines have never played the “last minute” discount game that some retailers and hotel operators have done.  They don’t seem to want to set a precedent that may mean lower revenue when travelers figure out how to game the system.

    What they’ve been doing is giving discounts for booking early and imposing restrictions on canceling or exchanging tickets.  They trade a low price for guaranteed revenue.  It’s very similar to how hotels now have discount prepaid rates or when they deal with Hotwire or Priceline.

  • gritchie

    My God. I’m sorry Ms. Geffen got sick; I really am… but how much is she entitled to for $19?  Accompaniment by a medical professional?  How about an air ambulance?  She got a return of approximately 1700% on her $19. I think that’s enough.      

  • Carchar

    It’s not uncommon for me to wait until the last minute to book a leisure trip. I can’t tell you how many times during this past year that I’ve been surprised at getting a lower fare by waiting…and I mean waiting till two weeks or less to make the reservation. I’ve even been upgraded on some of those trips. Perhaps fewer people are flying.

  • Linda Jordan

    Customer service is a lost art!

  • euro_flyer

    I agree with Jeremy, ARW and JamesinPNH in that the only real error here is the CS agents inclusion of the comment about those who abuse the sytem.. Is she right? I’m sure she is to some extent.. but I don’t think that’s an appropriate answer to give out loud. You can say “I’m sorry we don’t do that for a number of reasons.” or more directly “I’m sorry that’s just not our policy”.. but I wouldn’t say as the OP alleges was said… I don’t however think the comment was direct AT the OP to otherwise insinuate that the OP was attempting to do so– but unless we were to hear the actual call, it’s hard to say..

    I agree with James and ARW in that as unfortunate as this is, the responsibility to be properly insured does fall to the OP and not with US Airways..

    As to the notion of “human decency” goes, I think it’s still there, but does not have to manifest itself in the form of a ticket price reduction.

    My issue here with the notion that US Airways should have given them a brake it this… Where is the line drawn? If they (US Airways) do it in this case, what do you then say to the next passenger who is in a similar or more tragic set of circumstances? 

    Do we want a fair and equitable dispensation of what really is a discretionary tool?  or are we willing to let it be just that– a discretionary tool for the airline (as the owner of the discretion) to use or not use as they see fit..  

    My issue is that once we start opening that door, it’s hard to stop as we’ll get cases of “You did it for him! Why not me too?”

  • Caitlin Fitzsimmons

    This is true. She should be claiming the entire cost of her son’s airfare on insurance. I think she has a case.

  • Caitlin Fitzsimmons

    I think it was a general comment. She’s saying they are the worst airline not that this is the worst example of airlines being bad.

  • Caitlin Fitzsimmons

    $19 for insurance for one trip is reasonable. In the UK you can get an annual policy for two people for £80. That insures for medical needs, personal liability and theft for worldwide travel with up to 60 days travel on multiple trips for a whole year. It covers activities like snow sports too.

  • Andrew F

    The situation where a company doesn’t HAVE to do anything, but SHOULD — if it has any decency left — is a perfect case for mediation of a consumer advocate.  Here, the airline should at least be on the hook for its representative’s foul mouth.

  • IGoEverywhere

    There are few compassion fares in the airlinr industry. It does take a good ASTA “Travle agent” to find them. Don’t blame USair, they don’t have them. Christopher was correct in that they should have purchased tickets on another line. There are lots of cheap fares in that market at the last minute.

  • TonyA_says

    There’s nothing to mediate. The no advance purchase fares from almost all airlines from PHL-ATL (assuming that is the correct Georgia airport) is $662 before tax & fees. The Y fares are $1512-1712 (except for Airtran’s $728). Therefore, since all the fares were similar, then USAir did not gouge the OP and her companion. Even if they get a 50% compassion discount on Y fares, they would have paid more.

    This is a case of hurt feelings due to an insensitive telephone agent.

  • flutiefan

    exactly. 99.999% of people are traveling for a reason (the others are on “mileage runs”), and each of them thinks their reason is important. each of them would also like to pay less than they do.

  • TonyA_says

    I hate to say this but there is a possibility the OP was also rude from the point of view of the CSR.

    I actually do not understand why people think there is a reasonable expectation to get a “discount” on air travel if one is sick or needs medical treatment. Airlines are in business for profit. They are not charities. I wouldn’t be surprised if the hospital and doctor in Georgia charged her and her insurance the typical fees without a discount. So why can’t airlines do the same?

  • Richard Wong

    Wow Chris – this might be your closest polling result ever!

  • toniv

    I have a problem with this sentence:
    “I’m sure the agent had heard it all before — and yes, passengers do try to get around the system because the system can be unfair.”
    Passengers try to get around the system not because it is unfair. Passengers try to get around the system because they want to get around the system. Period. 

  • toniv

    Once again…folks…Nonrefundable means…nonrefundable.

  • toniv

    WHY people fly shouldn’t affect the price they pay. WHEN you buy your ticket DOES. Insurance should have paid for the son; if not, better insurance should have been purchased. Nonrefundable means just that — nonrefundable. No matter the reasons. Want the ability to get a ticket refunded? Buy a refundable ticket. 

  • toniv

    People post about airlines behaving with “human decency.” How about all those folks for years and years who totally abused bereavement fares and who are the reason why there is no such thing anymore? THEY need some finger-wagging. THEY operated without “human decency.” You see it now with people bringing a cousin’s birth certificate to show that their 4-year-old is just 2 so they can carry them on free as a lap infant. You see it with folks who call their pet a service dog or emotional support animal so the don’t have to pay a pet fee or keep their dog in a carrier. You see it with folks who say their disabled so they can get a cart ride and preboarding. It’s called shamelessness.

  • Steve_in_WI

    I agree completely. The CSR was rude and out of line when she implied that the passenger wasn’t really sick.

    But it’s not US Airways’ responsibility to price last-minute fares based on the passenger’s reason for traveling. If an airline is willing to make an exception in special circumstances, that’s nice, but they have zero obligation to do so.

  • andrelot

    Firstly, I’m sorry for the illness of this woman and wish her a full recovery.

    Now, to the facts: companies normally don’t give discounts because of emergency situations. Gas or road tolls are not cheaper because one is rushing his wife for early term labor. Immediately after or prior funerals, people don’t expect restaurants or supermarkets to serve food or sell groceries 50% off price. If, God forbids, your children disappear and you go to the police station, the vending machines will not give you cheaper coffee, candy bar or soda. Your rent doesn’t get lower because you lost your job. Your electricity bill isn’t becoming any cheaper if you have an infant who is seriously ill and need power-gouging monitors and equip by his/her bed 24/7 tripling your consumption. If you have triplets, Procter and Gamble will not give you 1-for-3 sets of Pampers. If you have an accident, and needs money fast, your broker will not sell shares you hold by last week’s 20% higher prices before a collapse last Monday.

    As much as many sad situations come across on Elliott, I have a hard time thinking why people think they are entitled to cheap or free travel because their situation is urgent.

  • andrelot

    LaneB, the problem is that it is a slippery slope. Death cases are the most aggravating, but if they give cheap tickets, people will whine about relatives in terminal illness about to die and want them too. Then, close relatives wanting to get to their parents/children ASAP after a life-threatening but non lethal accident. Then, cases as the one described by OP.

    But the ladder goes down: what about fathers whose wives enter pre-term labor the other side of the country? What about college kids that can suddenly get a scholarship they weren’t expecting, but need to attend an event on short notice? What about parents of grown-up kids that attempted and failed suicide? What about a person, mother of 3, 2 years unemployed, who can get a very good job out of state, but needs to attend a last interview the following morning and has no money for tickets because she’s got to feed the children?

    At the end of the day, you would end with a situation in which 80% of people travelling at the last moment would be “exempt” for the premium prices of last-minute travel, which would translate in everyone else not getting deep discounts for planning a vacation with months in advance, of college kids buying cheap tickets for Thanksgiving already in MAy. 

  • andrelot

    I don’t see a problem with “complicated fare structures” at all, because the net result of them has been tickets whose average prices that are way, way lower than in any regulated market. Some people get stressed because they wanted flights to be like subways: buy your ticket at any moment, any day, and the price is the same, but airline tickets are too expensive for that. 

  • flutiefan

    and yet i sincerely doubt the CSR was rude, and i doubt that she implied any such thing. this woman was distraught, and her perception was likely off.  it could’ve been an innocuous statement as simple as, “No I’m so sorry that USAir doesn’t allow us to make these changes. it’s unfortunate for those who really need it, but people pretend to be sick all the time.” i truly believe that no matter HOW the CSR said it, because it wasn’t a “yes”, the OP would perceive it as “not very nice”. 

  • flutiefan

    @toniv:twitter , were you at my ticket counter when that happened? i literally had a lady bring her nephew to the counter in a stroller, saying he was her 2 yr old lap child. she even had a birth certificate. turns out, he was 4 years old, he was actually her own son, she had his legs bent behind him (so he was on his knees) with a blanket over his lower half to make him look smaller/shorter. she came at the last minute, hoping we’d be too rushed to notice. 

    fortunately while she was dropping her bags off with TSA, i was doing her ticketing and waved “hi” with him, while saying “Hi Steven!”. he piped right up: “My name’s not Steven! I’m Andre! I’m 4!”  kids… gotta love their honesty!  

    she was mortified, tried to deny it, then called her sister and complained we were making her pay for her son.  i said, “i thought he was your nephew?” she told me, “Shut up, you already got my money.”
    just proves you’re not exaggerating. totally shameless.