Airlines can be compassionate — if you know who to ask

Remember “no waivers, no favors,” the unbending, post-9/11 airline policy that said all rules were to be enforced, no exceptions? Kay Fore got a little flashback when she asked Northwest Airlines to refund her nonrefundable ticket after her husband had a kidney transplant last year. Turns out she was talking to the wrong people.

I know what you’re thinking: nonrefundable ticket. Refund. Get a grip, lady. You rolled the dice and lost.

But in the real world, that’s a completely impractical view. Fore’s other option was a refundable ticket, which cost twice as much as the nonrefundable one.

Why the price discrepancy? Refundable tickets are sold to business travelers, who can afford to pay a premium in exchange for the flexibility such a ticket offers.

In the real world — and at some level of the organization — airlines understand that and offer refunds on a case-by-case basis.

But at what level? Not the one Fore tried to contact at first.

I sent an e-mail to Northwest Airlines, explaining that because of complications and being hospitalized several time since surgery, we have not been able to use the credit and asked if the credit could be used by our daughter.

Their answer was “no.” The credit could only be used by him and his new travel has to be on or before June 8, 2009. At this time, we are unable to do any traveling before June.

Northwest Airlines was acquired by Delta Air Lines last year, so it would be easy to assume that whoever is left in its customer service department is on autopilot, reading scripts or sending out form responses. Not true.

I suggested that Fore contact one of the former customer service managers with her problem. She did.

Northwest called and because of extenuating circumstances they will be sending us a refund. Thank you for giving us the information to pursue this.

I’m encouraged by Northwest’s response. It suggests that the airline — and perhaps even Delta — understands that sometimes, despite your best efforts, you can’t take a nonrefundable flight. Or use a nonrefundable ticket credit.

The gesture cost Northwest a few hundred dollars. But the next time Fore has a choice in airlines, I’m willing to bet she’ll go with Northwest/Delta.

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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