Her condition isn’t covered — should we push for a refund?

By | May 21st, 2016

Here’s a new twist on all the nonrefundable airline ticket cases we see on this site. It involves a responsible consumer, an uninsurable condition and a company that almost always sticks to the rules.

I’d love to know how you would try to fix this one.

Julie Montgomery wrote to us recently to ask for help retrieving her nonrefundable airfare from American Airlines. But this is no ordinary case.

“I deal with chronic depression,” she says, “Sometimes in a major down moment I go on a spending craze.”

That’s what happened recently when she booked a surfing trip to the Dominican Republic in mid-August. The $1,245 airfare was, of course, totally nonrefundable.

“I’m now working with a financial advisor who is helping me get out of thousands of dollars of debt,” she says. “I’m able to get a refund from the tour company for the surfing part but am not sure where to start to get the airline ticket refunded.”

Probably because it’s a non-starter. (Did I just hear a voice from the peanut gallery saying, “That’s because her ticket is nonrefundable. What part of nonrefundable don’t you understand?”)

Anyway, here are Montgomery’s choices when she booked the trip:

    • Pay for a fairly reasonably but restricted airline ticket and take your chance that something might derail the trip. The risk? She could lose $1,245.
    • Buy a much more expensive refundable ticket. But those fares are double, triple and sometimes even more, and aimed at business travelers with expense accounts. No reasonable tourist books them, and the airlines know it.
    • Purchase travel insurance. But hang on. Mental illnesses are not covered events, so the only policy that would have worked a pricey “cancel for any reason” policy, which costs 10 percent of the value of your trip or more.
Related story:   A complaint from the "huddled masses yearning to be airborne"

So you see, Montgomery didn’t have a true choice that someone would have in a competitive industry. She had to pick between a bad option and a worse option for her airfares, and a worse option and no option at all for travel insurance.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Cry me a river. It was a surfing vacation. Boo hoo! But it just as easily could have been a funeral, an important business meeting or a job interview. The purpose of the trip isn’t as important as the principle here.

What would you do in this situation? I’ve already asked Montgomery for the paper trail between her and American. But would you push for a refund? Or let this be an expensive lesson learned, a talking point in her next debt counseling session?

I love competition and a free and fair marketplace, but as I look at the Montgomery case, I see de facto monopolies — a handful of airlines and insurance underwriters who do pretty much whatever they want with us. How can that be right?

Should I advocate for Julie Montgomery?

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