Can’t fly after emergency appendectomy — how about a refund?

Markus Mainka /
Markus Mainka /
If you’ve ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes when a case comes in, let me offer a little glimpse. The email goes to a group of trusted advisors and … we argue.

Is it a valid claim? Are the rules being followed? Do we have a paper trail?

And when we can’t agree on something, then it becomes a Tuesday post: Can this trip be saved?

All of which brings us to Ruth Ann Wulff’s case. The situation, she explains, has been dragging on for six months, and it involves her husband. Just before a recent family vacation from Sacramento, Calif., to Cancun, Mexico, to celebrate her 70th birthday, her husband had to have an emergency appendectomy.

Obviously, he couldn’t take the flight on US Airways. “I sent all of the medical information to verify his operation including a no-fly letter from the doctor,” she says.

An airline representative agreed to US Airways’ standard terms: a ticket credit which could be used up to a year from the date of a booking, minus a $200 change fee and any fare differential. The representative assured her US Airways was sympathetic to the family’s health woes.

But then things took a turn for the worse. Wulff herself began experiencing health problems, and her husband’s condition didn’t improve. Soon, it became clear that they’d never be able to take advantage of the US Airways ticket credit.

Wulff asked US Airways for a full refund, considering her circumstances. The response? Well, I’m sure you can guess.

“I’m sorry you were unable to travel with US as planned to Cancun,” a representative wrote. “I realize that a sudden illness might cause an unforeseen change. I understand your frustration; however, I’m unable to honor your request to refund your husband’s non-refundable ticket.”

Wulff’s husband would have to die before US Airways would part with its money, and even then, there’s no guarantee it would.

Case closed? Well, I was initially inclined to say so. Half of our mediation team says Wulff deserved to lose the credit. After all, if she’d wanted to hedge her bets, she could have purchased a refundable fare (alas, those cost about four times more than a regular non-refundable ticket) or at least taken out a travel insurance policy, which would have covered an emergency appendectomy.

But some team members disagreed with that assessment. US Airways, they argued, should show some compassion for a family that will probably never be able to fly again. Some of them have relatives to whom similar things have happened, and wish an advocate had been able to step in and recover a much-needed refund.

I feel as if I’m being pulled in two directions on this one. I want to help, but I also know what US Airways’ likely response will be: “Wulff knew the rules, or should have known the rules, and we’re very sorry, but so should you. Why ask us to waive our own rules? It wouldn’t be fair to the thousands of other passengers with sob stories who don’t contact you.”

And that would be correct.

At the same time, airlines don’t always follow their own rules. It’s something that’s euphemistically referred to as “employee empowerment,” or the ability to push a button and make a ticket change fee go away or grant a passenger an upgrade.

They don’t even follow the laws of the land, sometimes. Browse through the Transportation Department’s enforcement orders if you don’t believe me. Here’s US Airways failing to comply with the Air Carrier Access Act, for example.

I feel reluctant to encourage US Airways to do something it doesn’t have to do, but probably should do. I know I’ll get into trouble with the “rules are rules” readers, but something tells me they might be wrong on this one.

By the way, if you’re interested in joining our mediation team, please apply to become one of our volunteers. I have to warn you: We get a lot of help requests, so I hope you don’t mind getting emails.

Should I mediate Ruth Ann Wulff's case?

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Update (1/28): My resolutions team sent Wulff a list of US Airways executives. She contacted one of them with her story, and here’s the outcome:

One of the names you provided, I e-mailed him and he had his secretary call me. US Air is going to give me a voucher for my husband’s monies. But they are still charging a fee of $150 (because we couldn’t fly before Jan 11, 2014) instead of the $200.00 they originally wrote me about. So that is a $50 savings.

There is approximately a $500 voucher for us to use with them before January 2015. It is transferable so I guess that is good. I would of rather had the cash and be done with this company. Oh well, I thank you for the names of executives to help. It worked, I did hear from someone other than the usual people booking flights because no one can talk with people in customer service except their own people.

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

    My original post came from my GDS. If USAIR is still not giving you the rules ahead of time, then don’t book on that site. You have a right to know what you are buying and the terms and conditions before providing personal infomation. If indeed this is still happening, file a complaint. BUT the rules are still available and it is the travelers responsibility to know them.

  • Michael__K

    Actually, even if you bought a “Cancel for Any Reason” policy, you STILL probably won’t be covered for pregnancy by most policies, because it’s usually a general exclusion.

    Cancel for “Any” Reason is a complete misnomer.

    See the discussion here:

  • LadySiren

    Ah, posted my original comment before the update. She should be grateful they’re working with her at all, IMO.

  • Thoroughlyamused

    God, I could only imagine the crap you had to put up with…

  • Thoroughlyamused Always start there. Their phone center reps are super awesome too, they are the reason I found out about Travel Guard. They know what they are talking about, as they directed me to a company that would not exclude coverage due to my grandfather being in hospice. I had tried 4 companies before calling them and they all told me that would exclude coverage. Insuremytrip is the Kayak of travel insurance.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Fair enough. But the thing that still doesn’t make any sense to me is why you care so deeply. Do you own lots of US Airways stock? You’re an employee? Have family working for them?

    If anything, I’d think most people would look at this and go “I doubt I’d have done that in the airlines place, but lucky for this person they did. Maybe someday I’ll get lucky like that, too.” But to be upset the airline chose to do their business differently than you would, or that Chris would dare to choose a letter you wouldn’t is a bit much. The airline is obviously comfortable with how they handled this so that should be the end of that. And this article wasn’t exactly a hatchet job piece tearing down Mother Teresa.

  • Bill___A

    Perhaps they should factor less of it in and stick to their policies. This is all reflected in fares.

  • Bill___A

    “slipped through” would be an explanation for a speeder not caught, a mistaken email sent, or a touchdown that was made. Considering all of the work and effort, double checking of facts and editing, saying that this one “slipped through” is utter rubbish. It was posted intentionally. It looks to me that most people are not pleased that this “slipped through” and happened to result in compensation (myself included).

  • LonnieC

    That’s my point exactly. All of our friends are computer literate and well travelled. And all of us get insurance.
    My point was that it’s wrong to characterize a group in the way a few commenters were doing. The issue isn’t age, it’s really just common sense. And that’s lacking in people of every age.
    My feeling about the OP was that it’s important to know what you don’t know, and get help. And that applies for any age.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I defer to the people who are actually running the airline and their business judgment.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    That’s something that you need to take up with Chris directly. As far as being pleased or displeased with his choice of topics and advocacy, I wouldn’t be so bold as to dictate to Chris his choice of cases or chastise him for the people who chooses to help.

    Fortunately, right and wrong are not a popularity contest. For whatever reason, Chris felt that helping this lady was the right thing to do. I leave it at that.

  • Bill___A

    Just an opinion I expressed, that’s all.

  • Bill___A

    It is what it is.

  • Stereoknob

    Oh right, I forgot. There’s no room for understanding and compassion in our society. Rules are rules and thats it so deal with it or GTFO. That is the way we should move our society forward.

    CAPITALISM WORKS! Just look around and you can see it in the smiles of the poor and homeless.

  • nateisfunny

    Like many here, I sympathize with their predicament. I think it would be nice if the company refunded the fare. I don’t think the company is obligated to do so. There are a ton of reasons why a voucher might not be adequate but when you buy a non-refundable fare you are agreeing to assume the risk of that being your only option should a problem arise, or passing that risk to another in the form of travel insurance.

    I would love to see US Air agree to refund the change fee at least since this flight seems unlikely to ever happen and US Air is better off for it (since they still hold the cost of the ticket). But even there, I think that is the company’s decision to make.

  • y_p_w

    We bought nonrefundable tickets to visit family, until my wife got pregnant and freaked out about flying. I mean – she was totally convinced that it would put her at a high risk for miscarriage. So we cancelled and then were willing to take the credit. I think we paid about $180 RT each and when I checked, the fee to rebook a similarly priced flight was $80. Seemed pretty good to me. Until she refused to fly with a young infant.

    So I’ve been there eating a nonrefundable fare, a nonrefundable hotel reservation, etc. That’s the risk taken to get a lower fare or rate. You really need to calculate if it’s really worth it. For myself it is because I’ve rarely had to cancel and the alternative is typically 2-5 times as much. You want that rate, then with it comes the risk that you’ll have to eat if if something comes up.

  • Lindabator


  • Thoroughlyamused

    Send the OP a check since you obviously feel so strongly about it. It is easy to be generous with other people’s money.

  • Annie M

    Do you know how many sob stories like this the airlines, cruise lines, etc. hear? We hear it right in this column countless times – so man y that we are all obviously sick and tired of hearing it again and again. If they make an exception for one, they have to do it for all. Sorry, it is up to the passenger to protect themselves.

  • Lindabator

    We did keep track of most, and had an annual contest in our department for a winner of the most outrageous one! Have to laugh or go nuts!