Here’s a problem I run into every now and then, and which I normally refer back to the airline – which usually tells the passenger “tough luck.”

But this one is a little different. It comes to me by way of Laura Lee, who had made reservations to fly from Sacramento, Calif., to New York on United Airlines for Nov. 6.

“Due to a family crisis, I had to cancel our flight on October 30,” she says. “I spoke to someone in customer service and was informed that I would be charged $150 per ticket for the cancellation. I was too distraught at the time to question or argue regarding the cancellation fee.”

Fast forward to last weekend, when Lee logged back on to Orbitz, the site through which she’d booked her tickets. It informed her that her flight was canceled because of superstorm Sandy.

“Even if I hadn’t canceled, the flight still would not have been possible,” she says.

She adds,

I am at a loss as to what I should do so that I will not be charged $300 for a cancellation fee. It is important for us to make the trip to New York to see our 97-year-old aunt sometime, as she is in fragile health.

I hope you can assist us. The cancellation fee is around 75 percent of the cost of our tickets.

I’ve tried to mediate cases like this in the past. From an airline’s perspective, this all comes down to a timing issue. When Lee made her cancellation, all flights were operating normally, so it applied its rules correctly.

Timing is everything when it comes to airlines. If you buy a ticket two weeks before your departure, it will offer a significant discount. If you walk up to the counter an hour before the flight leaves, and there’s room on the plane, then you’ll pay a premium.

So why did I pause before sending this passenger the “I-can’t-help-you” letter? You mean, besides the effective 75 percent cancellation penalty? Well, part of it is the difficult personal circumstances. If Lee were a business traveler on a generous expense account, this would be a little bit less difficult to turn down. But she just wants to visit her elderly aunt in New York.

United – and other airlines – are relaxing many of their own rules after the storm. Is it asking too much to bend a rule for Lee, too?

I could ask United to help this passenger out. But should I?

Should I mediate Laura Lee's case with United Airlines?

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