I have a brain tumor – can I get a refund on my non-refundable ticket?

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When Sam Baker’s case crossed my desk, I instinctively jumped to the same conclusion many of you will. He should have bought travel insurance. He should have booked a refundable ticket.

Right, of course. In hindsight, who wouldn’t?

But then I remembered a recent email I’d received from an airline publicist, scolding me for even suggesting his company might consider refunding a non-refundable ticket. And it occurred to me that his airline — really, every airline — is not solely in the transportation business.

It’s in the people business.

People like Baker, who had a ticket from Seattle to Frankfurt, Germany, on Condor Airlines to attend a wedding.

“I was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor that will require surgery,” he told me. “I will be having awake craniotomy brain surgery, followed by extended treatment throughout the summer and perhaps longer, making it impossible for me to travel to Frankfurt.”

Baker asked Condor to consider a one-time refund.

Forget it, the airline said.

“Unfortunately we can only offer you a cancellation according our terms and conditions,” a representative responded by email.

Either Baker could cancel and get a full refund of $110 he paid in taxes and fees, or he could pay a $78 change fee and rebook within a year of his initial reservation.

“I will have significant medical bills in the coming months,” says Baker, adding that neither of these options were viable.

I’m no brain surgeon, but here’s what I know about awake craniotomies. They’re difficult, complicated procedures that only the most skilled doctors dare to perform. Usually, they’re used to remove tumors close to functional areas of the brain. My point being, Baker’s condition is serious. He’s not asking for a refund because he has the sniffles or feels like staying home.

Of course I contacted Condor on Baker’s behalf. Like you even have to ask.

But that’s not the question. What I want to know is this: Last year I said I wouldn’t mediate cases where passengers were asking for refunds on non-refundable tickets.

I might have been too hasty.

We’ve had some animated discussions in the last week about nonrefundable airfares. Here’s the story that kicked it off.

I think you can take a hard line when you’re dealing with cargo, but these are people. Airlines routinely pull the “people” card — successfully, I might add — when their flight attendants are late or their pilots get sick. The most we can hope for is a refund when our flights are canceled because of these unforeseen events.

Yet when something truly serious happens, like a brain tumor, airlines are quick to tell us that our tickets are completely non-refundable. Sorry–rules are rules!

Now mind you, I’m coming at this from the perspective of an advocate, not as an airline revenue manager. But even if I were an airline insider, I’d know that in years past, refunds were given more liberally and airlines understood that life sometimes just happens.

The airline industry’s “no waivers, no favors” policy may have boosted profits, but what has it done for passengers?

Condor refunded Baker $1,292, his full fare.

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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  • TonyA_says

    I just need to make sure you only counted the refunds of non-refundable fares that are not due to schedule changes.
    I doubt these type of refunds are that high in occurrence.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I’m not sure who the pronouns refer to.

  • bodega3

    I think most people want to see compassion in the rules, but I also want people to stop lying and cheating to get something they don’t qualify for. Where do you draw the line? I am not a fan of insurance, but why should someone who didn’t take it out and has a medical reason to cancel get a refund? Where is the fairness there? I really would like the carriers to stick to there rules. Once you bend them, and it is out there for all to read about, then everyone should get the rules bent….that’s fairness, right?

  • Mark Carrara

    What if your boss said hey why not work Saturday for no pay, it’s only one day what’s the big deal. It’s no skin off anyone else’s nose, just you. Well those tickets you already paid for just eat the cost it is only a small percentage of your total income.

  • TonyA_says

    57% of the airlines polled by ATPCO said they want to automate refund transactions to eliminate unauthorized “waivers and favors”
    Automating essentially means bullet-proofing the penalty rules.
    My question is not about being fair to those who bought travel insurance since that is BEYOND the airline to pax relationship.
    I question whether fundamentally the airline ticket rules should include an emergency waiver? Just because an airline fails to manage it well does not mean they should be free to remove it. Why was it there in the first place (before they removed it)?
    I really believe this has something to do with processing cost.
    Automation lowers cost. And you cannot automate a process well if you have lots of sub processes needing human intervention.
    The constant removal of humans, first travel agents, then customer service/revenue agents, check-in agents (by kiosks) will definitely lower costs to airlines. But a service devoid of humans, do we really want that?

  • pauletteb

    If ever there was a case to advocate, this is it. Seems that the airlines (and many other companies) have forgotten the value of good PR.

  • emanon256

    We have no way of knowing the number of refunds, or the cause, that’s why we only estimated 5 per flight. We also assumed 100% of all fares were discounted non-refundable fares, which skews our number even lower. I read your report to see if I could get better estimates, but it didn’t give specifics.

  • TonyA_says

    Well you can see where this is going. Compassion is not an efficient transaction because it cannot be automated. So airlines can adopt the all or nothing approach. They will refuse all requests automatically. They will not even waste their time making an internal customer service refund policy. But in the rare event, a well known advocate gets involved, they will simply refund the whole transaction because it is cheaper to reverse that sale than to have dozens of customer service people waste their time. It is all about efficiency and the cost of a transaction.

  • Miami510

    Three cheers for Christopher and for Condor. Both did the right thing. Condor was smart; considering the good public relations that comes from Christopher’s telling this story, they couldn’t couldn’t buy that for $1300. This was a win-win-win situation.

  • SallyLu

    I definitely feel that it is fair that this guy gets a refund, even if he didn’t buy refundable or insurance. Is it fair that he has a brain tumor? Life isn’t always fair. I’d much rather be the healthy traveler who paid a little more than the guy who got a refund because he has a brain tumor. Even if it means that some dishonest people get undeserved refunds.

  • TonyA_says

    I can see what you 2 are trying to do. How much would fares have to increase to recoup the loss revenue (keep revenue constant) given x% cancel and do not rebook and y% change, both without penalty?
    But I see a fundamental problem with that question.
    The current revenue mix is a result of people buying refundable and changeable tickets versus non-refundable and changeable with a fee after making rational decisions.
    If you remove the penalty cancellation fees and the change fees, that will fundamentally alter the buying decision. Everything becomes refundable and changeable without a fee. Why will anyone buy the more expensive fees? The revenue per flight will drop dramatically.

  • bodega3

    I have gone to bat for clients on nonref tickets, so I don’t have a problem with what the airline did. I do have a problem with people lying and cheating to get something they don’t deserve, which I have encountered in my years of selling travel.

  • emanon256

    We were trying to answer the statement that so many people make here when they say, “Just make all fares refundable, changeable, with no penalty and Ill gladly pay a few $ more.” Like you said, it will drive up prices more than a fee $, it will change everything.

    So in our case, we can’t account for how many people buy refundable, or first class fares, so we had to assume 100% discount non-refundable using data from Flight Tracker. Then we had to assume numbers.

    So our figure was that base fare would go up a minimum of $26 per segment, knowing the faults in our data, which mean the number could very well be much higher.

  • bodega3

    I think you know my answer on that :-)

  • TonyA_says

    I’m not sure where the problem is if all fares were refundable in the first place. Is the problem noshows?

  • TonyA_says

    What really happens to these liars? Do the airlines just give in to these crooks? Why can’t they deny the request?

  • SallyLu

    My thing is that I hate to see good people who are really sick being punished because of the bad ones. I completely understand how you feel because you’re the one going to bat for them, but I’d rather a few dishonest people get undeserved refunds than 1 really deserving person not. Even if it means I pay a little more.

  • flutiefan

    please stop calling airline employees unintelligent people. this is the 2nd time you’ve done that in a day! while i may have some truly moronic coworkers, the majority are very intelligent people. and, get this: many of us have degrees! shocker! we’re not just one step up from a McDonalds employee!

  • flutiefan

    i effing hate Amadeus. their reservations/Customer Management system is worthless.

  • flutiefan

    i would think yes. if there are a certain number of seats to sell, even with an overbooking policy in place there would still be a point where you would have to stop selling tickets. opportunity loss.

  • flutiefan

    truth. i’m on my way to being automated out of a job.

  • bodega3

    Yes, it sucks for passengers, too. I HATE the kiosks and they take longer for most of us.

  • bodega3

    I understand that, but at the same time, why didn’t the LW buy travel insurance or buy a ticket with another carrier that had medical covered? Those who play by the rules get screwed…and yes, the LW is in a bad place, I get that.

  • bodega3

    I am sure noshows caused the problem. Just like they do if you are putting on a party, paying for food, entertainment and nobody bothers to tell you if they are coming or not.

  • bodega3

    There is a cost involved in changing tickets. Now is it $250? I say no. IMHO, they have raised the change fees trying to dissuade passengers from making changes. They use to pay us to handle changes, but no longer and let me tell you, handling ticket exchanges is a pain and one mistake and we are fined.

  • TonyA_says

    I really think you are misreading my comment.
    I’m saying airlines don’t want complicated tasks that require high level human intervention. Those tasks are expensive. That’s why the want to automate refunds and reissues. The ATPCO report demonstrates how airlines think. Cost reduction is most important to them. I don’t really think they care about your IQ.

  • TonyA_says

    Call me crazy, but some level of automation need to be outlawed. We cannot accept a society with very little jobs. Jeremy Rivkin wrote a book The End Of Work. Maybe he is right. But people will regret this one day. I am one person who still walks in the bank and talk to tellers. I don’t use self checkout at stores. I want to see jobs preserved.

  • The Original Joe S

    I’m not certain I get your point…..

  • The Original Joe S

    And they beat the government out of taxes on change fees, baggage fees, all the extra fees they charge.

  • The Original Joe S

    Yeah! Especially when they ain’t got no brain!

  • bodega3

    Yes, in other industries, service fees are taxable.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Extending a courtesy to one person does not mean that it is unfair to others. The other person didn’t loose out on anything. Fair treatment does not necessarily require equal treatment particularly when that courtesy doesn’t directly affect others.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    How exactly do those people who play by the rules get screwed? They bought insurance and got exactly what they purchased.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    They don’t suck for all passengers. I love Kiosks. I usually fly first class and I find the Kiosks to generally be far faster and more efficient than waiting for a ticket agent, especially if I don’t have checked luggage.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I’ll call you crazy. :-)

    But seriously, that is an unsustainable position. Its arbitrary. Do you really want to have to ask for the operator to place a phone call? Do you really want to go inside to pay for your gas? Do you want to go inside the bank every time you want to withdraw money?

    We use automation every day, things that would seem like Star Trek a couple generations ago. The hope is that as progress eliminates certain jobs, it creates new jobs.

    I remember when I first started out, attorneys were just getting rid of dictaphones. We still had secretaries, not admins. Word processors have been by all accounts superior to typewriters and the associated labor costs. And the internet (broadband) reduced the need for attorney buildings stocked with a well kept law library. The result was a new breed of attorneys who could, and do, charge far less to deliver legal services owing to the cost reductions of those advances.

    I suspect this is true in many fields

  • Michael__K

    We got here because the airlines used to allow this and doctors faked notes.

    Evidence?

    Plenty of airlines still have medical exceptions for international flights. It’s just that Condor Airlines isn’t one of them.

  • bodega3

    Sadly, for those of us who don’t wish to use kiosks, we are finding our options limited. It took a long time to check our bags in HNL at the FC kiosk. We usually use a Skycap, but there was no line inside so we did that. Bad move! Usually in HNL, you had a choice of going to an agent or a kiosk. Now all there is are the kiosks and those dirty, nasty touch screens. Yuck!

  • John Baker

    Which part … the fake notes? That’s easy. The change in airline direction is an assumption on my part.

  • flutiefan

    Same here. I have used the self-serves at times (late at night, or I only have 1 or 2 items), I admit. But I also know the employee is much quicker than I am at scanning those UPC codes or depositing a check!

    Sadly, out managers give out the metrics showing how many passengers have checked in at each option (skycap, kiosk, agent, home) and we are chastised if our “Agent” numbers are too high.

  • flutiefan

    But I’m told I must force the passenger to use it. If they get stuck or there’s an error code, THEN I can help. It makes me look like a jerk to the passengers but I’m doing what I’m told so I don’t lose my job over “insubordination”.

  • bodega3

    Well that certainly sucks! I have only once had a smooth experience with a kiosk. I usually have a problem and then I have to wait while the agent is helping others. Then I have to wait for my bag to get tagged. I hate it! In HNL, I have had the option of going to a counter or using the kiosk, but this year all we could do was use a kiosk and it was awful!

  • BMG4ME

    Then I really can’t see the point in airlines offering cancellation insurance since one of its purposes it to provide refunds in cases exactly like this. Maybe that’s what should happen.

  • Laura616

    I believe this refund was justified but why don’t people get into the habit of buying ‘cancellation for any reason’ insurance. It has cost me $100 for a two week trip to London. It’s very little to pay on a $2550 ticket. No end of things could come up which would necessitate cancellation so for the sake of everyone’s sanity why don’t they do it? Maybe it just hasn’t occurred to them.