“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 . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • $16635417

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

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Really?

    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!