Raw fury after being shortchanged on a refund

By | January 11th, 2016

Bobbi Ziegler’s case makes me angry.

Angry at the airline industry for the way it prices tickets.

Angry at the airline insiders, who continue to defend these indefensible practices.

Angry at the airline apologists, who think a compassionate gesture would “raise ticket prices” for the rest of us.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Here’s what happened to Ziegler: A few months ago, she flew from Montreal to West Palm Beach, Fla., on a restricted economy class ticket. Ziegler works as a receptionist in a doctor’s office, so that’s all she could afford.

“While I was visiting my mother she suffered a devastating stroke,” she says. “I notified the airline that I could not take the flight but instead was sitting by her bedside.”

Sadly, Ziegler’s mother passed away.

United charged her a $841 walk-up fare to fly back to Montreal. When she showed the airline a death certificate, they refunded the $150 change fee.

“They said there’s nothing else they can do,” she says.

Actually, there is so much more United can do.

I can already hear some of you saying:

    • “That’s how the system works. If you don’t like it, drive.”
    • “We tried offering bereavement fares, but customers abused them. I wonder how many more times Ziegler’s mother is going to ‘die?'”
    • “Refunding the change fee was more than generous. She didn’t even deserve that.”

Go on, I’m waiting for your comments.

Well, we all know that airline tickets are perishable and priced hyper-dynamically, which is to say, they change by the second, based on consumer demand. The system mistook Ziegler, a grieving daughter who was just trying to get home, for a fat cat business traveler on an expense account.

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That doesn’t make it right. Or fair.

We also know that tens of thousands of passengers have abused bereavement fares in the past. Does that mean we should end these compassionate fare options? It’s easy for you to sit in your comfortable chair and say “yes” — until a loved one dies and you have to fly somewhere last-minute for a funeral.

And to those of you who say that offering to change Ziegler’s ticket at no charge, as a compassionate gesture, would raise prices, I’d like to know where you studied economics. Fact is, the “raising prices” argument is an old chestnut used by deregulation fanatics, with virtually no basis in reality.

A popular offshoot: “I don’t want to subsidize Ziegler’s low fare.”

Shame on you for even thinking that.

Shame. On. You.

Have we taken the humanity out of air travel and handed the pricing to the machines and policies? I’ve been talking with United Airlines about cases like this, and it tells me that it wants to do better.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually encouraged it to do the right thing for customers like Ziegler? Wouldn’t it be nice if the free marketers and the apologists just shut up for a change and allowed an airline to do something decent?

Should I advocate Bobbi Ziegler's case?

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