“Even though some folks might not believe it, airlines have a heart”

Chris Parypa Photography / Shutterstock.com

Here’s a case with a happy-ish ending that involves one of the most complained-about airlines flying: American Airlines.

Well, technically, it’s about US Airways, but since it’s merged with American, the company is one big happy family. More or less.

It comes to us by way of Mike Evans, who had planned to fly from Philadelphia to Las Vegas with his wife’s brother, Brian McGarvey, and his wife, Francis. Last summer, they were planning to tour several national parks, including the Grand Canyon.

But in July, Francis fell ill and had surgery. Doctors would not allow her to travel.

“Her situation still has not improved,” he says. “She is unable to work, is rarely able to leave her home and is still under a doctor’s care. I provided letters from her doctor in September and a letter from her surgeon in January.”

Evans says he tried to handle the situation as professionally as possible.

“We asked our travel agent to cancel as promptly as possible to give the airline an opportunity to resell the seats,” he notes. “A senior agent at the travel agency said she would request a refund.”

The airline’s response? A standard, “You have one year to use the tickets.”

Evans appealed the denial, saying he would be happy to use the tickets if he could change the name and allow a healthy friend to use the credit. (As you can imagine, that, too, was denied.)

Over the holidays, Francis’ conditioned worsened, and Evans tried to appeal again. He reached a compassionate reservations agent who urged him to fax the documentation to the airline. She told him, “Even though some folks might not believe it, airlines have a heart.”

That is both easy to believe – and difficult. Airline agents do have a heart – after all, they’re only human – but airline policies, which are created to maximize a company’s revenue, generally do not have a heart. Employees can be terminated for waiving even a small rule, and they know it.

My resolutions team worked with Evans to try to get more than the “tough luck” answer. And we did – sorta. Initial appeals were ignored, but finally a letter to the CEO resulted in a call from a supervisor.

“She wanted to speak directly with Brian or Francis, to hear from them that they could not travel and that I could not speak for them,” he remembers. “I got Brian on the phone and she asked several questions and then she let him go.”

Here’s what the airline offered:

1. Waive the $150 fee per ticket if they would book and travel within the month. Not possible.

2. Extend the tickets to the purchase date, allowing travel before September, but with a fee of $150 per ticket. Also unlikely.

3. Allow a name change to the tickets, good for a year, but again with a $150 fee per ticket.

Evans was hoping to get all of the $931 back on compassionate grounds.

“I lobbied hard for a refund and even harder to waive the fees, but she would not budge,” he says. “She put me on hold to check with her supervisor, but she would not yield.”

I think American’s offer is better than average. It apparently believes the McGarveys should have purchased a refundable fare if they thought they might want to change their reservation, but that’s a little disingenuous. Unrestricted fares, which are meant to be purchased by business travelers on an expense account, typically cost three to four times more than a garden-variety ticket.

Why can’t American change the name on a ticket? Well, it can, but does it really cost the airline $150 to process that kind of transaction? Only in a-la-carte fee utopia.

I’m heartened that American would try to help these customers, who obviously will never be able to use their ticket as they intended to. But is this a genuine offer of compassion or a cold-hearted ploy to take even more of this family’s money?

Did American offer the McGarvey’s enough compensation?

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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 chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • backprop

    Did AA offer enough “compensation”? Compensation for what? Compensation is made to right a wrong. In this case, the airline didn’t do anything wrong, though I can name a few things the OP was remiss in doing, like buying insurance on the non-refundable tickets.

    AA made an extremely generous offer, especially with allowing a name change for just $150, which is effectively what the OP wanted to begin with. And the OP now has the nerve to try and drag AA through the mud by to shame them into a full refund?

    Shame on you for trying to put the “cold-hearted ploy” spin on it. I expect better.

  • $16635417

    “Unrestricted fares”…”typically cost three to four times more than a garden-variety ticket.”

    Would trip cancellation insurance have been an option? Were they offered this by their travel agent and declined the option? I’m sure it would have not have been anywhere near the premium of an unrestricted fare.

  • sirwired

    A $150 fee for a name change (which is not allowed under the original terms of the ticket) seems like a reasonable resolution. I’ve said it a bazillion times: “Non-refundable” means non-refundable. Not “Non-refundable unless I have a tragic circumstance and/or engage the attention of the media.” If you want money back from a cancelled trip, either buy a refundable ticket (which yes, is silly for a leisure trip) or purchase trip insurance. And yes, if you are otherwise in good health and not in dire straits, insuring a cheap domestic plane ticket is also silly, but if you don’t protect your trip in any way and you have to cancel… well, them’s the breaks.

    The whole reason restricted airfares are cheaper is because the airline knows they’ll be able to recover anywhere from change fees to the entire fare if your plans change or cancel. They aren’t cheaper just because they want to give travelers a good deal.

  • Helio

    Maybe because Chris usually gets a full refund in situations like that, he fells entitled to it too.
    The comparison factor: “it’s a good deal, but others got a better one, I also want a better one!”

  • John Baker

    Unrestricted fares, which are meant to be purchased by business travelers on an expense account, typically cost three to four times more than a garden-variety ticket

    But trip insurance isn’t…. In fact, I just went through the reservation process for US Air. The cost of trip insurance, which you have to affirmatively accept or decline, was less than $20 on a $400 ticket. Based on the OP’s narrative, he declined a $40 option for his two tickets that would have given him all of his money back (I checked the policy DOC). $40 is significantly less than 3 to 4 times the ticket price. Its closer to 5%.

    He made a choice to save $40 and lost out unfortunately.

  • Don Spilky

    I feel like the OP was being very piggish in attempting to get the airline to refund all 3 tickets. I also feel that the airlines should start offering a “name change” on the tickets for whatever fee (say $150) as standard policy. I think that if they were to start doing that, they would have a much stronger position than just saying “no” and having to say “yes” when pressured by helpful travel ombudsmen such as Chris.

  • Stereoknob

    Every time one of these stories pop up, the usual response from this crowd is rules are rules. All rules aren’t good rules. The insurance industry around travel was created to make additional ancillary revenues for the shareholders. Just like paid first checked bags which solely exist to line the pockets of the CEO’s and shareholders of those companies.

    Unfortunately, if things continue progressing, every airline is going to end up like Ryanair. Yes, they make money but a world where the only thing that matters is money is one that is surely going to fail.

  • Wayne Dayton

    $150 for the FILE rather than PER ticket would have been fair and appropriate. $150 PER ticket for a transaction that “costs” about $20 in agent time and resources is not.

  • TonyA_says

    Had the same reaction. Compensation for what?
    The poll really screwed up the theme of the article.
    Maybe it should have been worded – did the airline show enough compassion?

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Agreed, I just changed compensation to compassion in my mind.I don’t want to ding the LW for an editing issue

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Oh, don’t I wish!

  • Thoroughlyamused

    Yawn, another entitled traveler who decided to be cheap and doesn’t want to hold up their end of the agreement. And even when the airline shows flexibility, the customer isn’t satisfied until they get their way 100%. Why bother to help these over entitled travelers?

  • bodega3

    FYI, it costs over $30 to issue a ticket. Changing tickets takes longer, plus paperwork, so there is a higher cost involved than $20.

  • MissFitz88

    I always enjoy reading the comments on this site; however I wish the regular contributors would do as Chris suggested and upload a picture for your profile. I find I’m always scrolling down to look for contributors I recognize by picture; meanwhile bypassing contributors without photos.

  • S363

    Yeah, we know, rules are rules, and they knew (or should have known) the rules when they booked. But those rules are not fair and not right. Of course the airlines have the right to impose them, and we have the right (and I would argue, the duty) not to use the airlines that do so whenever that is possible.

    If they had booked with Southwest, which has nonstop flights from PHL to LAS, they would have been able to cancel and, though not get cash back, get full credit, to be used anywhere on Southwest within one year of the booking. The more business Southwest does, the more pressure is put on other airlines to compete by offering a similar option. Not knowing when they booked or what Southwest’s fares were then, I can’t say whether Southwest would have been competitive as regards fares, but I bet they would have been. And I think it’s worth a little extra to do business with an airline that doesn’t screw its customers in every way possible, especially if one foresees the possibility of needing to change a flight.

    No, I don’t work for Southwest, or have any stock, I’d just like to see the other airlines behave more like them, which would benefit all travelers.

  • Michael__K

    Careful. The Allianz insurance policies sold through AA or USAir do not cover pre-existing conditions. If Francis had any symptoms or received any treatment within 120 days of purchase, the OP would still be in the exact same predicament
    — minus about $60 spent on an insurance policy that wouldn’t cover them(*)

    (*)He would have had to purchase insurance for all 3 passengers. And when I price it on AA I get $63 for 3 passengers and on US Airways I get $50 for 3 passengers for an itinerary that costs $313 per passenger.

  • bodega3

    The OP purchased their tickets via a TA. TA’s offer travel insurance that does cover preexisting insurance. You should NEVER purchase a carrier’s travel insurance.

  • bodega3

    But what happens in one year? WN’s fare is no longer useable. Most likely WN had the same fare in the market, but at the time of booking, their lower fares were already sold out.

  • Michael__K

    Who/what are you replying to?

    I responded to this claim:

    “Based on the OP’s narrative, he declined a $40 option for his two tickets that would have given him all of his money back”

  • bodega3

    As per you:Careful. The Allianz insurance policies sold through AA or USAir do not cover pre-existing conditions

  • MarkKelling

    The issue, as pointed out in the article, is that the flyers would not be able to fly within that one year. Southwest now requires any funds from cancelled flights to be used for another ticket for the same person. This is no different than what AA/US offered. Even if they had chosen the Southwest option, they would end up losing all of their money anyway.

  • Mel65

    “Evans was hoping to get all of the $931 back on compassionate grounds.” Sigh. I’m honestly not a cold-hearted person, but companies are in business to make a profit, not to provide sunshine, unicorns and rainbows to their customers. And the point of insurance is not for the things you expect to happen but to cover you for the unexpected, like oh say a sudden illness or surgery. If you hedge your bets and purchase insurance, then you don’t need compassion because you’ve covered your financial bases. Travelers who want to play the roulette wheel of cheap fares should, like all gamblers, only play with money they’re willing and able to lose. Offering a name change for a fee is the most reasonable outcome for all parties here.

  • DReinig

    I had a similiar issue with my parents with United. We had to cancel their tickets a week before their trip to meet the famly for a 60th anniversary cruise (for them). They were unable to reuse the tickets within a year and they lost over $900 on the tickets. Airlines must pocket a lot of money from cancelled and unused flights!

  • MarkKelling

    “companies are in business to make a profit, not to provide sunshine, unicorns and rainbows to their customers”

    Unless they are in the business of selling sunshine unicorns and rainbows. Then they sure better deliver! ;-)

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    I am getting SO BORED with stories about people trying to make themselves whole when they can’t use a non-ref ticket. The airlines own the planes, they make the rules … whether the rules are fair or not in our opinions. If you’re going to fly somewhere, surely you must have heard that the good ol’ days are gone. Read the information, buy insurance, ask questions, whatever else you can think of … don’t whine after you’re in trouble.

  • backprop

    That would work…and my “Yes” answer would be the same. AA bent its own rules, in the face of the OP’s negligence, and the OP still wants more.

  • TonyA_says

    Yes good idea. Photo in memory of our cat that passed away last week.

  • John Keahey

    Well said, backprop. Of course you realize this response will make you an airline “apologist”. But I repeat, well said.

  • Thomas Ralph

    Well said. US is being exceptionally generous here and I wish Chris would be as strict on people who are looking for things that travel insurance would have covered as he (rightly) is on people who exploit error fares.

  • TonyA_says

    Well at least we can argue if a fare is indeed an error or not because we are quite unsure what the filer intended.

  • TonyA_says

    I have a hard time having compassion for people who want to go to Vegas and have fun. I’m assuming they have enough money to throw away, and perhaps travel another day. I have a lot more compassion for folks in our soup kitchens and the down and out.

  • Grant Ritchie

    I’m so sorry for your loss. I’ve shared my home and heart with (^;^)~’s for 30 years, and know how you feel.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Can’t say anything better than what Grant Ritchie said. I don’t think I’d want to have petted your cat avatar, though.

  • TonyA_says

    Thank you so much. All my kids grew up with our 2 cats. We were all devastated. The silver lining is the kids took him to the vet and participated in the whole event. They wanted to make sure our cat will at least not be in pain anymore and he goes with some dignity. Made us all feel more human.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    To be fair, Las Vegas is the perfect jumping off point for those traveling to the Grand Canyon from the east. My husband and I have thought about flying there and heading south, only pausing long enough in Sin City to rent a car. This may have been the case here.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Now there’s an image to upload as an avatar . . .

  • TonyA_says

    I will find a better picture :-)
    Our cat photos are all in our phones and tablets and I still have to move them to the laptop. This one is a cat (I believe a snow leopard) I saw in the Sapporo Zoo.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    I think the snow leopard is fine. After all, my avatar is a Blue Poison Dart Frog that I saw (safely behind glass) at Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha. Don’t want to pet that one, either. :-D

  • TonyA_says

    Yes I have done that myself. But of course only after some temptations :) We got a car in Vegas and returned it in Phoenix.
    One of the best trips ever. My only regret is not taking the old Grand Canyon Railway at Williams.

    Added: Nothing was stopping the LW from flying PHL to LAS on Southwest. That would have been the “right” thing to do if you don’t want to mess with insurance. Even jetBlue would be okay since they also bank unused money.

  • TonyA_says

    I was afraid to ask you what the heck that was in your avatar. I’m gonna have nightmares about them poison darts tonight when I watch some old Game of Thrones episodes.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    You know, the funny thing is that I never got directly involved in this case. I advised the customer from behind the curtain. I wanted to find out what you, the readers, thought of this resolution. That’s all. But wow … what an interesting debate.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    I posted the picture about 2 years ago, when I discovered you could add a picture or an image. A picture of me holding a Timber Rattlesnake was only up for a couple of hours before I remembered that Raven has a thing about snakes and took it down in favor of the cute blue frog that can kill you.

  • Helio

    If I may suggest, it’s an easy way to move few photos – choose a couple pictures and send via e-mail to yourself ;-)

  • Helio

    Cute frog, indeed :-)

  • Helio

    It was a good resolution for me. Not the one OP desires, but even so an well acceptable one, IMHO.

  • TonyA_says

    It worked. Many thanks, Helio.

  • $16635417

    deleted…trouble posting pic of rainbows, unicorns and sunshine.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Awwwww . . .

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Adorable. Is that you as a youngster, or your son?

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    You mean, like this?

  • $16635417

    Neither..just some random, angry internet pic that conveys how I usually feel. lol!

  • Carver Clark Farrow


    You consider making an error in judgment to be the same level as purposely taking advantage of an obvious error?

  • Thomas Ralph

    Not buying travel insurance is an obvious error.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Not a particularly good dodge.

  • Thomas Ralph

    It’s not a “dodge” at all.

    Nobody goes out in their car and doesn’t bother getting full insurance because “hey, Ford will give me a new one if it gets totalled”. [I appreciate some level of insurance is mandatory in some jurisdictions, but normally this is only for liabilities to third parties.] If they do choose not to get insured, they are taking the risk they may need to eat a loss.

    It’s no different with travel insurance. My wife and I have an annual worldwide policy which auto-renews out of our bank account. We’ve set it up and can now forget about it.

    I am simply sick of seeing Chris name companies for holding customers to the deal they agreed to, especially when he starts calling it good customer service and encourages pestering executives for an exception. Good customer service to all the other customers of the airline is denying these requests so that the cost of meeting them doesn’t go on everyone else’s fares.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Be sick of it, that’s a defensible position. The merits can, and should be, discussed. What is not defensible is to compare the LW and similar people to someone who purposely books a room, flight, car, who knows that it’s an error. To make any sort of equivalence is simply wrong.

    Being a whiner is one level
    Being a thief/scammer/opportunist is quite another.

    That’s my objection.

  • Thomas Ralph

    I understand your distinction between whiners/opportunists but to me they aren’t different “levels”. Each wants something to which they aren’t entitled, each has paid less than they should, and each is willing to make a very public song and dance to get what they feel is an entitlement.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Then I guess that’s where we have to agree to disagree. I simply cannot comprehend how one can make a moral equivalency between a whiner and a thief.

    Edited. And I for one hope that Chris continues to lambast those who take advantage of other people’s mistakes.

  • PsyGuy

    A $150 name change fee is what I would have asked for. If the OP wanted a full refund they should have bought insurance.

  • Alan Gore

    The name change for $150 does seem reasonable. But now why can’t this be a standard policy, rather than a begged-for special arrangement? If you can’t fly, let a friend or relative go instead for a fee. The airline has already sold the seat and is taking zero risk by allowing another passenger to take his place. I’m old enough to remember paper tickets, when selling an unused ticket to someone else was routine. In these electronic times, the airline would be getting a fee out of the deal which is several times the actual cost of doing a name change. I wish my business had that sort of profit margin.

  • Lindabator

    Because of the previous history of fraud – which is why the airlines lowered the hammer over 20 years ago on this!

  • PolishKnightUSA

    Steerage class is supposedly on a thin margin. Something like $30 per passenger out of a thousand. These tickets are highly non-refundable and are effectively subsidized by the business travelers who buy last minute.

  • Alan Gore

    No, they lowered the hammer purely because the invention of e–ticketing meant they could, at the same time as being able to advertise that lost and stolen tickets were now a thing of the past. It’s exactly the same phenomenon as TV networks charging you extra to watch a missed show online after it was broadcast, even though you are watching it with a full set of commercials.

    What element of ‘fraud’ was involved when a passenger freely sold an unused ticket to another person? The carrier had already been paid for the seat no matter who was flying. And no, there was no mass rush of sweaty commoners reselling bulk tickets to undercut official fares. Then as now, TAs and consolidators could operate at an economy of scale that dwarfed any cork-board amateur reseller..

  • DReinig

    Actually, their tickers were expensive for economy. Over $900 for round trip Ft. Myers, Florida to Newark, NJ in July. They had to cancel for medical reasons and were unable to use them within a year for medical reasons . As for business travels who pay ridiculous prices, I’m one of them!