Oh, for the last time – nonrefundable means nonrefundable (except when it doesn’t)

Chris Parypa Photography / Shutterstock.com

Pamela Mason knew her US Airways ticket to California was nonrefundable. But she thought her circumstances — she became seriously ill after “contracting something nasty in Mexico” that landed her in the emergency room — was reason for it to bend a rule.

Oh, and she read a story about another passenger who I’d helped with a refund on a nonrefundable ticket.

The request went to our busy resolutions department, where Will Leeper, our volunteer coordinator, reviewed the specifics of her request.

“I called my travel agent the day prior to the flight to cancel for all four of us,” explains Mason. “After being bed-ridden for two weeks, I finally contacted US Airways for refunds via the website and conferred with your site to see what other recourse may be possible. I got emails denying all four refunds.”

Mason had sent US Airways doctor’s notes that verified her medical condition, but it didn’t seem to matter.

I wonder about her “agent.” A competent travel adviser would have told Mason’s family that, absent any trip insurance, their best bet would be to ask for a ticket credit, which could be used up to a year from the date of the original reservation.

Instead, she apparently just canceled the flights, which were totally nonrefundable. That’s like telling the airline: Hey, we’re going to give you all the money for the tickets and offer you the opportunity to resell the seats.

US Airways should be grateful.

But it wasn’t.

Leeper saw no way out, except perhaps an appeal to someone higher up at the airline for a one-time exception to its rules.

“Unfortunately, nonrefundable almost always means exactly what it says — it can’t be refunded,” he wrote.

He added,

There are often provisions in fare rules that allow changes to be made in the event of a medical emergency (or vouchers issuable for the amount of the tickets, without a deduction of the applicable change fees), but generally speaking, the fare rules (which are agreed to when you purchase the ticket) do not allow nonrefundable tickets to suddenly become refundable in the event of a medical condition.

I’m sorry I couldn’t have better news.

That was the right answer. To which she replied:

So who are you exactly? Would the doctor’s letter, medical records and CT scan from the hospital be helpful? My doctor is ready to provide all documents.

Leeper explained that he was one of several volunteers who help answer questions from readers. He continued,

While I am terribly sorry to hear about your medical condition, and I wish you a full and speedy recovery, if you didn’t purchase travel insurance, the most the airline will usually offer are travel vouchers for the amount you paid which can be used within one year of the date you originally booked your travel.

Mason was unhappy with that answer.

So the “stories” I read on the website, blogs, facebook are bunk? Not trying to be pejorative, but I see a lot of similarities between my situation and the story of the lady who couldn’t fly to her cruise due to hospitalization just recently posted.

Is it all just a shell game to boost readership and garner contributions?

At that point, I jumped in.

Ms. Mason, I’m going to ask the airline about your case, but I’m fairly confident that Will is correct. They will also tell us “no.” But I’m more than willing to check on your behalf.

Please bear in mind, we can’t force a travel company to do anything.

And yes, I asked. And the answer was a fast and hard “no.” My contact said she should have bought insurance on her ticket.

Case closed.

As I’ve explained to my resolutions team time and again, the best way to avoid becoming the target of a passenger’s anger is to allow the airline to say “no.” That may be a cop-out, but it’s true that if I had my way, airline policies would be far more customer-friendly than they are.

There’s no reason a fully refundable airline ticket can’t be affordable, or that airline rules can’t be a little more flexible. After all, the airline industry is sinking its teeth into record-setting ancillary revenues — and profits.

US Airways apparently had second thoughts about its “no.” After initially rejecting her request, it sent her a follow-up email that said “based on the circumstances you have described and as a one time courtesy, I have documented your reservation to waive the change fee.”

“We are thrilled and thankful for the blessing,” Mason told me.

Should US Airways have waived Pamela Mason's change fee?

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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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  • bodega3

    For years, the first thing I use to turn to, when the office copy of Conde Nast came in, was the Ombudsman column. The requests for assistance back then were reasonable and usually well handled. In fact, I learned a few things from those that helped me with client’s needs. These days, the requests to a travel Ombudsman are truly from those who feel entitled, don’t pay attention to rules because someone will cover them later if needed and basic whiners. For the most part, the articles on this site with requests for Chris’ help are often unnecessary.

  • backprop

    I think he may have been referring to Christopher’s statement, effectively that calling the airline was something only a fool would do.

  • TonyA_says

    Many people come here because they feel that they are entitled to an exception to a policy, something they agreed to when they bought a ticket. So, Elliott tries …

    What we need to do is separate the wheat from the chaff.
    There are cases where the OPs were truly victims.
    Those are the people we need to help.

  • bodega3

    I guess we don’t see those that are truly victims on this site.


    I was once on a flight that ended with an FAA incident report and a very late arrival to my destination city. I wrote to the carrier requesting reimbursement of the cost of a car and driver to my home as my ride could not pick me up when we arrived 9 hours late. I told the carrier everything they did right and complimented the crew and received reimbursement. My business colleague wrote an abusive letter and received a form letter back denying compensation for weather delay. (The issue started with bad weather and went haywire when we landed to re-fuel.) It does help if you slather them with kindness.

  • omgstfualready

    But he bears the responsibility of creating that atmosphere. He has said often that the rules ‘should’ be bent. My take on reading his opinions is that the business is starting out as wrong. I realize he is a consumer advocate but it is difficult to be a fan of someone who doesn’t appear to start from a position of impartiality.

  • bodega3

    I, too, have done the same. I received flight credit from a carrier on a free, nonrev ticket once from a letter I sent describing what had happened. I asked for nothing, just wanted them to know how poorly things had gone but also praised the ground crew and flight attendant who had to deal with a plane full of angry customers who were caught in a bad decision by corporate.

  • gracekelley

    Agreed, people get farther being nice and polite(basically treat service workers like the human beings they are) rather than the I’m the customer so I’m always right period(rules are for the plebeian not for me). Then they blast social media with the annoyingly laughable you suck your customer service sucks rantings. Yeah how far did it get them other than pissed off?
    I guarantee no airline ticket is worth reverting back to toddler like behaviors!

  • gracekelley

    Try saying please and thank you it may work rather than ranting about ridiculous policies from the get go. The customer is always right is probably the worst thing ever invented as far as sayings go. Treat others as you want to be treated is a good one though.
    Besides, is something in black and white that people check a box acknowledging said policies really fraudulent when something happens and policy is enforced? No, fraud is thinking that a companies policy applies to everyone but you.

  • gracekelley

    They do. Flexible refundable non restrictive fares and insurance among a few.

  • gracekelley

    If she gets an attitude with a volunteer trying to help her break the rules of her ticket I can only shudder to think what she said/how she acted towards the airline personnel.

  • gracekelley

    That is how things should always work. Entitlement attitudes will get people nowhere then when they get belligerent they got nothing but being pissed off. The crazy part is they will always think that they are in the right and they are just pitiful and have received”bad” customer service.

  • gracekelley

    How is it that in 2014 people who are traveling internationally at the very least don’t purchase insurance for the trip? Also, why is she coping an attitude with a volunteer for trying to help her break the rules of the fare? I imagine a Medusa like approach with airline personnel after her but the customer is always right argument didn’t work. :-/

  • gracekelley

    I was actually thinking about not purchasing insurance on a upcoming trip abroad but I think nah I’ll just be belligerent to all company employees that are doing their job and mimic my 5 year olds behavior when I don’t get my way if anything goes wrong! It should work right? I am special after all more so than everyone else. Yes, it’s my world, they just live in it.

    Kidding. I agree with you.

  • gracekelley

    I suspect that it may have had something to do with your maners, attitude and ability to treat an individual as a fellow human that won them over.

  • gracekelley

    Usairways may just be trying to keep their name out of the press lately is what a little bird told me. Basically, anyone who uses any type of common courtesy and isn’t portraying they lacked being disciplined as a child has the upper hand right now. Of course, this is purely hearsay.

  • gracekelley

    She probably would’ve gotten the same or similar results, as would most people with legit issues, if they simply treat people how they would like to be treated. I don’t care if it is via email, phone, hand written letters or in person but kindness goes a long way especially now when it is so rare. People who are using a service of any business tend to forget that human elements are involved in the undertaking and being a customer is no free pass to treat people like garbage. It’s simple really but almost always overlooked. Plain and simple don’t be an a$%hole.

  • Thoroughlyamused

    I know. I dealt with that crap all day long at the rental counter. People who becAme instantly furious when I told them they would have to pay an upgrade fee when they realized booking an economy rental for their party of 5 people all with 2 large roller bags each was simply not going to work.

  • TonyA_says

    I just looked it up. For AA someone has to die :(


  • TonyA_says

    Can you now categorically state that USAirways has some compassion?

  • bodega3

    Potato, Potatoe, Depends on the receiving end. I found it insulting, rude and plain out of line to respond to someone like that who is responding to your request for help.

  • bodega3


  • bodega3

    You couldn’t pay me enough to do that kind of work!

  • Carver Clark Farrow


  • jim6555

    I don’t think that she was entitled to a refund. It shocks me to learn that someone at US Airways actually has a compassionate, human side. That’s a first.

  • jim6555

    I’ve often wondered how a legacy carrier would handle a situation where a passenger has checked in for a flight and cleared security. While awaiting departure, the passenger suffers a heart attack and has to be hospitalized. I can see the airline offering a full refund or, in the other extreme, playing hardball and charging a penalty to reissue the ticket? Is anyone familiar with this sort of situation?

  • Annie M

    And this is EXACTLY why you should stop taking cases where people think they are exceptions to the rule. She sees you do it a few times and expects you can work miracles. The person to send all her doctors I to would have been HER TRAVEL INSURANCE company. Oh wait… She didn’t buy any. Wonder if the agent who screwed it up advised her to buy it.

    Chris, I hope you will stop taking these ridiculous cases where the right thing to tell people they should have bought insurance instead of trying to plead to suppliers to make exceptions. You ‘d probably get rid of 50% of complaints and your volunteers could work on people that really do need help. Maybe it finally took a demanding jerk like this to show you that too many people think they are above the rules.

  • Annie M

    That is what travel insurance is for. No need for the airlines to do anything different.

  • Annie M

    Which is exactly why Chris needs to stop taking these type of complaints.

  • JenniferFinger

    Well, it would have been a compassionate thing for the airline to do to refund her money in the first place, even for a nonrefundable ticket. But once she started getting snide, she threw away her credibility and standing and I wouldn’t have wanted to help her.

  • Mel65

    “Yes, of COURSE, I bought a non-refundable ticket. I didn’t expect to get sick!” Sigh. Lather, rinse, repeat. Ad.Nauseum.

  • Thoroughlyamused

    Very well said.

  • Thoroughlyamused

    It wasn’t an attack, it was a disagreement. If you can’t handle being disagreed with don’t post in a public forum.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Are you seriously suggesting that had she never read an Elliott article she would have never asked for a refund? The LW is obviously entitled and acts accordingly.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Lol. Sorry bud.

    The challenge was that Chris never helps someone whom he knows is **lying**. I still maintain that he doesn’t. Still waiting….


  • Thoroughlyamused

    That is neither here nor there. My point a few articles back is that when you start breaking rules for a few people, everyone notices and then believes THEY are the exception to the rule. And the OP did exactly that. She referenced past articles in an attempt to show CE that she was, in fact, the exception to the rule.

  • Thoroughlyamused

    First job out of undergrad. If you piece together all the clues you can probably guess which company :) And believe it or not that job helped me land a much more satisfying one later, both personally and financially. You gotta start somewhere…

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    No, that’s exactly the point. In your own words

    when you start breaking rules for a few people, everyone notices and then believes THEY are the exception to the rule

    This lady obviously believed she was the exception to the rule long before she ever heard of Chris. Her behavior towards Leper shows that.

  • Helio

    What i disliked in this case was when Chris overstepped Will Leeper and asked again to airline bending the rules. And he got the bending.

    It weaken his associates – from now on, everybody who don’t get his/her demands fulfilled by some volunteer, will ask, will require, will demand, for Chris intervention, because he seems to be more effective than the others. And, in this case, he was.

  • William_Leeper

    Will is “just a volunteer” and usually I don’t get involved in advocating anymore, but when they are backed up, I jump in an help where I can.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    I stepped in because I wanted to defend Will’s actions, which were appropriate. He’s an integral part of our resolutions team, and my intent wasn’t to second guess anything he did.

  • flutiefan

    that’s a nasty thing to say. maybe you’re just a bad customer.

  • Crissy

    Here is how I view flights and flight insurance. If I can’t afford to lose the money the the flight cost or there is something unusual about the trip where I suspect I might have to cancel and the flight wasn’t cheap – then I buy insurance for my flight.

    Just because something happens to me and I can’t take a flight, I don’t expect the airline to do anything for me. Sure, I’ll politely ask, but I have no expectation of getting something. The fact that sending snotty emails works just encourages others to also be rude to get something. The more people behave like this, the less likely anyone will get anything. If this is the way people behave because they didn’t get an exemption that someone else got. Then why bother offering an exemption to anyone?

  • The Original Joe S

    Nasty, but rather valid IMHO…..

  • Thoroughlyamused

    “This lady obviously believed she was the exception to the rule long before she ever heard of Chris.”

    That’s an assumption that may or may not be correct. The fact of the matter is that this lady saw that exceptions were made in the past, and rather than accepting the fact she entered into an agreement and needed to hold up her end, decided to throw a huge temper tantrum so she could get her way.

  • Guest

    You should have upgraded them to this:

  • The Original Joe S
  • Mel65

    I just for fun took an “online assessment of my bitch factor” that a friend sent through Facebook. Turns out I’m 67% bitch!