Answer: My condolences on the loss of your wife. Airlines routinely offer a full refund when a passenger dies, and your online travel agency should have been able to return your money when you sent it proof of your spouse’s passing.
The death of a passenger is one of the most common exceptions to the nonrefundability rule on airline tickets (the other is military orders). Once Expedia and American were informed of the event, the refund should have been more or less automatic.
Editor’s note: This is the second installment of “TSA Watch,” a new weekly column about the federal agency charged with protecting America’s transportation systems. Why? Because no one else is.
The TSA’s response to Osama Bin Laden’s death last week couldn’t have been less clear — or more self-serving.
Here’s an event that many believed would directly affect the way people travel. They felt a prudent move would be to tighten security at airports, train stations and other public areas, for fear of a retaliatory attack by Al Qaeda.
Instead, the agency charged with protecting the nation’s transportation systems said nothing for several days, allowing us to speculate about our upcoming trips. Would we all be patted down at the airport? Stopped at a checkpoint on the bridge? Strip-searched before we boarded the subway?
Answer: Days Inn should have given you a refund, or at least allowed you to apply your $415 credit toward a future stay. But its “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude just doesn’t work for me.
Laura Brown is the acting assistant administrator for communications at the Federal Aviation Administration. After the death of Billy Mays yesterday, she was quoted as saying the TV pitchman wasn’t wearing a seatbelt on a plane that made an emergency landing. I asked her about the interview and the importance of seatbelts.
Q: Over the weekend, there was speculation that Billy Mays had died because of injuries to his head during an emergency landing. However, a preliminary autopsy suggests the cause of death was heart disease. What does the FAA know about the incident?
Brown: We are investigating the landing because there was damage to the aircraft. As far as we know, no passengers reported any injury. News reports suggest doctors have tentatively determined Billy Mays’ death was unrelated to any occurrence on the US Airways aircraft.
Q: You were quoted by TMZ as saying Mays wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. You’ve said the quote isn’t accurate. What did you tell the reporter?
Brown: All we told the reporter was that passengers are required to wear seatbelts during takeoff and landing. There was no mention whatsoever of the possibility that Billy Mays wasn’t wearing a seatbelt because there is no monitoring of seatbelt use on routine flights.
Q: Does the FAA know who is wearing a seatbelt and who isn’t?
Q: What are the FAA rules about seatbelts on aircraft?
Brown: Airlines are required to turn on the “fasten seat belt” sign during any time the airplane is moving on the airport surface, takeoff, landing, or any other time the pilot deems necessary. Each passenger is required by federal law to fasten his or her seatbelt when the “fasten seat belt” sign is illuminated. (Here’s the full rule.)
Q: Why is it important to wear a seatbelt on a plane?
Brown: An airplane seatbelt is a passengers’ best protection against any sudden or unexpected airplane movements. Turbulence can occur unexpectedly and can even occur when the sky appears to be clear. Turbulence is a bumpy ride that can cause passengers who are not wearing their seat belts to be thrown from their seats without warning. In nonfatal accidents, in-flight turbulence is the leading cause of injuries to both airline passengers and flight attendants. Each year, approximately 58 people in the United States are injured by turbulence while not wearing their seat belts.
Q: Can you think of any recent examples of a passenger being seriously injured because her or she wasn’t wearing a seatbelt?
Brown: We we can tell you that from 1980 through June 2004, U.S. air carriers had 198 turbulence accidents resulting in 266 serious injuries and three fatalities. At least two of the three fatalities involved passengers who were not wearing their seat belts while the seat belt sign was illuminated.
Q: What are the penalties for not wearing a seatbelt?
Brown: A passenger who does not wear a seatbelt is vulnerable to injury if the airplane hits unexpected turbulence. The FAA can impose a maximum fine of $25,000 if the passenger refuse to wear a seat belt and is deemed disruptive or unruly by the flight crew.
Q: Do you have any idea, based on enforcement actions, how often people do not wear their seatbelts, as required?
Brown: While tracking actual seatbelt use would be difficult, the FAA requires the airlines to provide a safety briefing at the beginning of flight that highlights the importance of wearing your seat belt. The agency has also done outreach via a public education campaign on the importance of wearing seat belts to prevent turbulence-related injuries.
Q: Do you have any advice for airline passengers who are concerned about safety during takeoff and landing, and possibly being struck in the head by items from an overhead bin?
Brown: Stowage compartments must meet certain certification requirements as specified in FAA regulations. Cabin bins are designed to withstand typical forces in order to prevent luggage from falling out an onto passengers.
Believe it or not, the latest celebrity death has a travel angle. TV pitchman Billy Mays, who was found dead in his Tampa home this morning, was a passenger on a US Airways flight yesterday. His son first reported the news on Twitter.
And here’s where things get a little weird.
The highly respected TV Newser blog connects the dots.
Mays was on board a US Airways flight yesterday that made an emergency landing in Tampa after its front tires blew out. It is unsure whether Mays’ death was related to the incident.
Here’s what’s known about the emergency landing, courtesy of the AP:
A Tampa International Airport spokeswoman says a runway was closed after a US Airways jet apparently blew its front tires while landing.
Airport spokeswoman Brenda Geoghagan says no passengers or crew on flight 1241 from Philadelphia were hurt when the jet landed Saturday afternoon. The passengers were taken to a secure area and then released to claim their baggage.
The incident left debris on the runway.
Mays was quoted after the landing by a Tampa FOX affiliate:
All of a sudden as we hit you know it was just the hardest hit, all the things from the ceiling started dropping. It hit me on the head, but I got a hard head.
(TMZ is reporting that Mays wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.)
Mays also commented about the landing on Twitter.
Just had a close call landing in Tampa. The tires blew out upon landing. Stuck in the plane on the runway. You can always count on US Air.
A US Airways spokesman told CNN there were no reported passenger injuries from the flight, and that it would “cooperate fully” with authorities in the investigation.
Is TV Newser speculating that the stress caused by a blown out tire somehow killed him? Or that something hit him on the head, leading to an untimely, Natasha Richardsonesque death?
Sounds a little far-fetched to me. But in a week when death is very fashionable among celebs, I wouldn’t rule anything out.
Let’s wait for the autopsy.
Update (6/28, 4:33 p.m.): US Airways spokesman James Olson has responded to my inquiry:
Yes, I can confirm that [Billy Mays] was on flight 1241 from PHL to Tampa yesterday. We were obviously very sad to learn of Mr. Mays’ passing this morning and have him and his family in our thoughts and prayers today.
The 737-400 blew out its two front tires during its scheduled landing at TPA. There were no reports of injuries by any of the 138 passengers or 5 crew onboard.
Question: I’m having some refund trouble with an airline, and need your help. Last year I had to cancel a Lufthansa flight I had booked through Expedia because of a death in my family. The ticket cost $303. When I told my travel agency the reason for canceling the trip, it gave me a list of documentation necessary for a refund.
I called Lufthansa, and a representative told me they wouldn’t process a refund by phone. So I sent the necessary paperwork to both Lufthansa and Expedia.
Since then, I’ve followed up several times online and have re-faxed the documents to Lufthansa. To date, I have never received any response from Lufthansa — not even to acknowledge receipt of the documentation. Any advice? — Megan Gallardo, Podgorica, Montenegro
Answer: I think you’ve been more than patient with Lufthansa. The airline should either send you a refund or refuse to return your money. Not responding is not acceptable.
Most airline tickets are nonrefundable, but airlines sometimes make exceptions when there’s a death in the family. Your online agent would have recommended that you send a death certificate and a letter to the airline, explaining your circumstances.
Refunds can take a while. Airlines normally tell you to wait two to three credit card billing cycles, but a year isn’t unheard of. I’ve seen that a time or two.
Why the foot-dragging? Of all the explanations I’ve been offered — slow accountants, obsolete technology, or just corporate policy — the one that rings truest is this: airlines don’t want to part with the money.
I’m not sure that’s what happened in your case. Maybe Lufthansa didn’t have all of your paperwork. Maybe your letter went to the wrong department. Either way, the airline kept you waiting for a year. It shouldn’t have.
Was this preventable? Absolutely. You bought your ticket through an online travel agency, which should have done more than just give you an address for refunds. You might have applied a little pressure to Expedia to nudge Lufthansa about the status of your refund. That’s what good travel agents do for their clients.
You might have also considered sending a polite follow-up email to Expedia and Lufthansa to check on the status of your update after a few months. An online inquiry is fine, but if you aren’t getting through to anyone, I recommend escalating your case to a manager or an executive. Their e-mail addresses are not difficult to find.
If neither the agency nor the airline responded, you might have contacted your credit card company to initiate a dispute. (If your ticket was fully refundable, and your credit card company believes your airline is simply holding on to your money, it might have been and open-and-shut case.)
At my suggestion, you emailed Expedia one last time. It responded saying, “your request for refund is still in progress as of this time” and that there were no further updates on whether the request had been approved.
So I contacted the airline. Initially, the airline deferred to Expedia. But eventually it came through for you. Nearly a year and a half after you applied for it, Lufthansa issued a $303 refund.
No one expects to come home in a casket.
But more Americans are. The number of claims made on death benefits by On Call International, a travel assistance service in Salem, N.H., has almost doubled in the last three years, rising from 125 claims in 2005 to 247 last year. Its numbers reflect a broader industry trend.
“More people are traveling,” says Jon Ansell, founding president of the US Travel Insurance Association, a trade group. “More people are dying.”
What’s killing them?
Internationally, traffic accidents top the list (about one-third of Americans killed overseas perished in a car wreck) followed by homicide (17 percent), and drowning (13 percent) according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Roughly 6,000 Americans pass away while they’re overseas every year, but that number is believed to be low, since not every American death is reported to the government. By comparison to U.S. injury fatalities (not just travelers), road traffic crashes accounted for 27 percent of deaths, while homicide was at 11 percent and drowning at just 2 percent.
If you pass away while you’re on vacation, your family and loved ones could experience headaches that needlessly compound their grief. There’s extra paperwork, arrangements for the return of your remains, and often, an unplanned stay in a faraway place to bring you back home.
I know about that firsthand because my family recently experienced an unexpected death that involved travel. Here are six strategies for dealing with a death on the road — either yours or a loved one’s:
1. Get insurance.
Having an insurance policy can lessen — but certainly not eliminate — the stress of losing a loved one on vacation. I know that it’s a little macabre, but reviewing the death benefits on your policy is critically important. Make sure there are provisions for emergency assistance, return of remains and coverage for family members who will have to travel to wherever you die to claim your body. The State Department can offer some assistance to your family but they’ll still pay $10,000 or more to get your remains back home if you don’t have insurance coverage. “Coordinating the repatriation of the mortal remains can be complicated and time-consuming,” says Dan McGinnity, a spokesman for AIG Travel Guard.
2. Tell a friend you’ll be away.
Let a loved one know where you’ll be, and make sure they have all the paperwork necessary to claim your body. Phyllis Zimbler Miller, a novelist from Los Angeles, remembers one of her husband’s clients who passed away in his hotel while traveling to Italy. “It took the hotel days to figure out whom to contact,” she remembers. That prompted Miller’s husband, an attorney who specializes in estate planning, to begin advising his clients to carry information on who should be contacted in case of emergency. Incidentally, she adds, this might be a good time to get all of your paperwork in order. “If you die without appropriate estate planning documents, your heirs are in for a huge mess going through probate hell,” she adds.
3. Travel light.
Jo Myers, author of “Good to Go — The ABCs of Death and Dying for Baby Boomers and Their Parents,” says making pre-arrangements can be helpful when you die while you’re traveling. That way, your next of kin needs only make a call to the funeral home to start the process of returning you to your final resting place. Myers says if you’re traveling with a friend, that person can be named a personal representative, who would be authorized to make decisions and arrangements on your family’s behalf. For people who die while on vacation, direct cremation is a popular option, because it reduces some of the transportation expenses associated with the return of remains. “With proper documentation, remains may be taken on an airplane as a carry-on item,” she says. “Remains may also be mailed to survivors by cremation providers.”
4. Lean on someone.
If you’ve just lost a loved one on the road, find a support group. When Tara La Bouff’s brother died while he was in Kauai last year, they turned to his employer, US Airways. La Bouff’s brother was a pilot, and was reported missing while snorkeling. US Airways flew several family members to Hawaii to claim the body. “The family was there until we could fly home with him, and were graciously chaperoned the entire time by a team of airline staff,” she recalls. She says turning to the airline was the right move. “We all were amazed by the amount of support it provided,” she says. Many companies have insurance that covers their employees in the event of an accidental death — even when they’re off the clock. If nothing else, an employer can offer much-needed support in a time of need.
5. Take your time.
While handling the details of an autopsy or funeral can take several days, you have to also be patient with yourself as you process a death on the road. You need time, too. When the son of a friend was killed on a surfing vacation in Costa Rica, Bonnie Russell, a Web site publisher from San Diego, Calif., watched the family come together for a memorial service. “Putting together the service saved my friend’s sanity,” she remembers. It wasn’t the first time that she’s dealt with a death while traveling. “What’s needed is the critical time for the brain to process information,” she says, adding, “this takes anywhere from hours to days.” If a loved one has died while on vacation, give yourself an extra day or two to deal with the aftermath of an unexpected death.
6. Put the event into perspective.
Bonnie Arends lost her son, Greg, in a car accident five years ago. His twin, Steve, survived the crash, but was left in a semi-comatose state for six months and today lives with a brain injury that severely affects his speech. Arends was determined to help prevent the tragedy from repeating itself, so she became a spokeswoman for a survey of young drivers sponsored by State Farm that urges parents to be aware of what their kids are doing behind the wheel. “Vehicle crashes can happen in a split second,” she told me. “And from that moment on, life may never be the same again. We can never assume that it will happen to someone else and not us. We need to be proactive in doing all we can to instill good driving technique and habits into all young drivers.”
When a loved one dies while traveling, you can do everything right — including finding the right support group, giving yourself enough time to deal with the shock of losing a friend and making sure your papers are filled out — but still suffer needless pain in your pocketbook. Darryl Roberts, author of “Profits of Death,” says passing away while traveling can be costly. Often, too costly. “The process of using two homes and shipping the body will likely cause the cost to roughly double the norm,” he says.
All the more reason to be wary of come-ons by a funeral home, like buying a pricey “protective casket,” which strikes an emotional chord with most people, he says. As the surviving family member, you’re not just dealing with an industry you probably know nothing about; you’re also in a faraway place, trying to cope with different customs and maybe a different language.
Be careful not to get scammed.