“This has been a long, long ordeal”

By | March 20th, 2016

Wayne Brumett wanted to take his family on a Disney vacation, and he spared no expense. In May, he purchased six first-class round-trip tickets on American Airlines between Sacramento and Orlando, at a price of more than $9,700. He planned to travel with his wife, son, daughter-in-law and two grandkids.

But in October, Brumett’s daughter-in-law unexpectedly collapsed and was taken to the emergency room. After multiple tests, she was diagnosed with a severe seizure disorder.

And despite paying nearly $10,000, those tickets on American were non-refundable.

This case highlights how an airline should — and should not — handle truly special circumstances presented for consideration by customers. And it reminds us what customers — and all of us — can learn about preparing for the unforeseen.

“My daughter-in-law has regained some semblance of balance, and can walk short distances in her house with the assistance of a walker,” Brumett wrote to our advocacy team. “Unfortunately, her current doctors have told her that bright lights and movement in an uncontrolled environment would cause her to lose her balance and suffer migraine headaches or seizure. Her current neurologist has determined that she cannot pursue airline travel for the foreseeable future.”

Five days after his daughter-in-law’s collapse, Brumett canceled the tickets, and began writing to American Airlines to plead his case. He didn’t want to lose the value of his tickets, which he knew would expire a year from the date of purchase.

The problem is, he has no idea when his daughter-in-law will be able to travel. He included letters from her doctors, explaining the prognosis and the uncertainty about when she might be able to fly.

American responded to Brumett, saying:

After reviewing the documentation submitted, it has been determined the request does not meet our exception requirements. The tickets purchased are non-refundable so we cannot offer a refund, issue a travel voucher, or transfer the tickets to others. However, the ticket will remain valid in our system for one year from the original date of issue, at which time it will expire and all value will be lost. The unused non-refundable ticket may be applied to future travel as long as all travel is completed prior to the expiration date. The new ticket will be subject to a change fee based on the fare rules, in addition to any difference in fare or fees that may be in effect at the time of travel.

While airlines don’t have to make exceptions to non-refundable ticket policies for unforeseen medical circumstances, the customer was only requesting that the ticket value be extended beyond the original purchase date.

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Brumett wasn’t asking for his money back. In fact, he told us, “Our first wish is for her to heal, so we all can make the trip as originally planned, but that may take years.”

I’m already a believer that airlines need to be more lenient with customers regarding the expiration dates of vouchers. I’ve written about it before. And something about this mom suddenly stricken with an ailment that was leaving her unable to travel — and presumably unable to be a mom — prompted my decision to take this case to American.

Besides, American should want to keep a customer willing to spend $10,000 on the airline, right?

Brumett understood the gravity of the situation. He understood American’s policy, and wanted to figure out how to retain his credit. He first considered how to use the credit before the expiration date, knowing his son’s family couldn’t travel. So, he and his wife booked a new trip in order to apply a portion of the credit. But American didn’t waive the change fees as promised. Instead, it charged him $200 per ticket, as is customarily done for non-refundable tickets.

Brumett’s problems were getting worse. He now needed our help getting the change fee refunded, as well as help with the expiration date on the remaining vouchers. So, I wrote to our contact at American Airlines, who responded that it would refund the change fees and waive them for the remaining vouchers, but the expiration date of May 2016 would still apply.

I asked what the airline would do if, as predicted, Brumett’s daughter-in-law’s condition didn’t improve before the expiration of the vouchers. Our contact told us that Brumett should contact the airline again on the eve of the expiration date for further consideration.

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A dangerous approach, wouldn’t you say? On the eve of the vouchers’ expiration, Brumett would have almost no options, and would be entirely at the mercy of the airline. That solution didn’t leave Brumett — or us — feeling very optimistic about a successful resolution.

Then out of the blue, Brumett received a letter in the mail from American Airlines. It was an unsettling letter expressing the airline’s condolences for the death of Brumett’s daughter-in-law. This form letter typically accompanies the return of original death certificates and represents an uncomfortable, but all too common misstep by the behemoth airline in its handling of refund requests.

I saw this as an opportunity to again illustrate to the airline just how poorly it had been managing this customer’s case, and requested relief. “As you know, his daughter-in-law is disabled — not dead,” I wrote. “I understand if you are not able to offer a refund, but a clearly stated letter of what he can expect, with a tracking number so that customer service representatives will know what he is talking about when he reschedules, would be appropriate and appreciated.”

Three days later, Brumett received a phone call from American, which decided to issue a refund for the remaining four vouchers — valued at more than $6,500.

Brumett was elated and relieved at the outcome. “I firmly feel that without your help, and Mr. Elliott’s column, American would never have given us this refund. I can’t thank you enough! This has been a long, long ordeal, and I certainly learned a lesson – always get refundable tickets on big vacations.”

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Brumett then asked, “Should I have originally purchased refundable tickets or would purchasing travel insurance given me the option of a refund in my situation? With all the small print on these policies, it is hard to understand exactly what they will and will not do?”

Excellent question. Travel insurance policies are beset with all kinds of limitations and exclusions. For example, pre-existing medical conditions are often excluded from coverage on travel policies. So if Brumett had purchased the policy prior to the onset of his daughter-in-law’s medical condition, the cancellation would likely be covered. But now that she has a diagnosis, any event related to her condition that might result in a cancellation would not be covered. It is quite tricky, and refundable tickets are a better bet for some travelers, because they are typically less restrictive. It really comes down to weighing the risks and benefits of each, along with a close review of the terms and conditions of each.

Should American Airlines have refunded Brumett's tickets?

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