death

Hey American Airlines, where’s my ticket refund?

Question: My grandfather recently passed away and I needed to travel to Austin, Texas, a few days later for his funeral. Because I was already scheduled to fly from Baltimore to Austin on American Airlines on Nov. 24 for Thanksgiving, I thought it would be easiest to just move my outbound flight up a few days to Nov. 19.
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Is “heartless” Southwest Airlines profiting from dad’s death?

Jennifer Kucinski lives in Kansas City. Her father lives in Orlando. Make that lived in Orlando.

A few weeks ago, she received devastating news that her dad had passed away unexpectedly. Compounding that tragedy was the fact that Southwest Airlines was trying to stick her with two overpriced plane tickets, a decision she calls “heartless.”

“Upon reaching the agent and explaining the situation, the first words out of the agents mouth were, ‘We don’t offer bereavement fares’,” she says.
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Case dismissed: My father died — please refund my rental car

Sometimes, even death isn’t a good enough reason for a refund.

Consider what happened to John Graham when his father died unexpectedly the day before he was scheduled to pick up a rental car he’d booked through Priceline. It’s true that Priceline’s rentals are non-refundable, but travel companies routinely make an exception when someone flashes a death certificate.

Not this time.
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Can this trip be saved? No hotel refund after a sudden death

A death certificate can be a trump card for travelers who want a refund. Whether you’re locked into a nonrefundable hotel room or a consolidator ticket, proof of a relative’s death can loosen the rules — if not get them waived entirely.

But what if it’s the death of a friend? That’s the call Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts and Expedia had to make after Joe Diamond’s neighbor died in a tragic car accident. He’d booked a two-night stay at the Mövenpick property in Munich, Germany, which he needed to cancel.

“At the time of booking, I did not notice the hidden cancellation policy that states that you are liable for 90 percent of the fee if the reservation is cancelled, which in itself, is totally absurd,” he says.
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The Travel Troubleshooter: Dead passengers can’t use a flight credit

Question: I recently booked a flight on Expedia from Dallas to Midland, Texas, with my wife. She died before we could make the trip. I canceled her ticket and applied for a refund through Expedia, the online agency through which I had booked the ticket.

I furnished all the requested documentation, including the death certificate. After not hearing anything from either Expedia or American Airlines, I called Expedia this week and was told that American had refused the refund.

The reason given was that all American could do was issue a credit for a future flight. But since my wife wouldn’t be able to use the credit, they weren’t even going to do that.

Now, the amount involved isn’t going to break me, nor would it break American Airlines, but the bizarre reasoning for the refusal just smacks of lousy customer relations. On top of American’s poor attitude, Expedia never informed me of the refusal of the refund until I initiated the call.

Sure I’d like a refund but you can bet your bottom dollar I will never darken the door of either American or Expedia again. — David Walters, Plano, Texas

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.
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TSA Watch: After Osama’s death, are screeners spreading confusion and fear?

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?
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The Travel Troubleshooter: Is a ‘natural cause’ a pre-existing condition?

Question: I need your help with a travel insurance problem. We booked a trip to Cancun through Orbitz last year, and when we got to the last screen of the reservation, it offered us a travel insurance policy through Access America. We thought it would be a good idea to have insurance, so we bought it.

Afterwards, we received a document with the specifics of our policy. I didn’t read it because I didn’t anticipate having to make a claim. But I was wrong.

Shortly before our trip, my mother died unexpectedly. I called Orbitz, which referred me to the insurance company. An Access America representative told me to cancel the trip and suggested that I reschedule it. They promised they would “take care” of the claim.

A few weeks later, Access America denied my claim for $951, because my mother suffered from high blood pressure. The death certificate listed the cause of death as being from “natural causes.” I didn’t know a natural cause was a pre-existing medical condition. — Cheryl Ellis, Lee’s Summit, Mo.

Answer: My condolences on the loss of your mother. I agree with you that a “natural cause” isn’t a pre-existing condition, and I think Access America should have honored your claim.
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Priceline promised to bend the rules, but now it’s backtracking

Rules are rules, but what happens when a travel company promises it will bend them? That’s the question Rebekah Conlon wants to answer. Her rental car, booked through Priceline, was non-refundable and non-changeable, and she knew it.

But just before she arrived in Toronto to pick up the car, she got a troubling call. “A family member had passed away,” she says. “We had to abruptly change our travel plans.”

She continues,

I contacted Priceline within 10 minutes of when we were supposed to pick up the rental car and informed them of the death in the family. They said they would contact me with details about a refund.

Nice of Priceline to agree to bend the rules for her. But when Conlon followed up, Priceline backtracked.
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Now that’s what I call an ethical customer!

Behind the scenes, employees often grumble that their customers would do anything to get a deal. They justify their own misrepresentations by saying consumers lie, too.

But not all travelers are ethically challenged. Exhibit “A” is Jeff Peterson, who sent me a question yesterday that I’ve never been asked.
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Losing my faith on Shamu’s first weekend back on the job

For the same reason people go to a car race (to see a fiery crash) or a hockey game (bare-knuckled fight) Shamu Stadium was packed to the gills for the 12:30 p.m. show Sunday, on Shamu’s second day on the job after the unfortunate incident in which he killed his trainer. Everyone wanted to see if something would happen.

Nothing happened.

But then, if it did, you wouldn’t be reading about it here. The news would be splattered across the front page of CNN.com.
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A canceled room, but no refund

Question: I recently made a reservation on the Days Inn Web site for six nights at the Days Inn Barnwell, SC. My American Express card was charged $415.

Because of a death in my family that required me to travel to Oklahoma to attend the funeral, I called Days Inn and requested that my reservation be canceled. I was informed that online reservations could not be canceled and that my credit card would be charged — the reason for the cancellation request notwithstanding.

I sent an email to the corporate office using the Web site’s “Contact Us” feature, requesting a review. My Amex card was charged a few days later, and I received a call from a Days Inn customer service agent shortly after that, who informed me that nothing could be done to reverse the charge. Can you help me get a refund? — Art Wallace, Miami Beach, Fla.

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.
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“I am fearful I will lose the money we worked so hard to save”

Michele Keller was all set to take a dream vacation to the Dominican Republic through Apple Vacations last year, when her significant other fell ill. After he took an unexpected turn for the worse, she learned that the insurance on her vacation didn’t cover her the way she though it would. Now she’s holding a voucher for a vacation she’s never likely to use.

Could this insurance mix-up have been prevented? And what exceptions, if any, do tour operators offer for customers who can’t travel because of illness — or death?

I’ve covered bogus travel insurance in the past on this site. But Keller’s insurance wasn’t fake; it just didn’t cover her the way she had hoped.
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No refund for passenger whose father dies — airline keeps the upgrade, too

unitedLook up the word “heartless” in the dictionary, and you’ll see a United Airlines plane. At least in Danny Chou’s book.

Chou recently experienced a family tragedy. Just two weeks before his wedding day, his father died unexpectedly. He had to postpone his wedding and honeymoon in order to take care of the funeral arrangements.

At a time like that, you would expect an airline to show some compassion — particularly if you can show it a death certificate. Wrong.
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Why are travel agents so defensive about one bad apple? Here’s a clue …

ishot-5I had to wonder what was wrong after numerous travel agents posted furious responses to today’s story about an agent that acted in an apparently unethical manner. Why were they being so defensive of a colleague who probably ought to be looking for another line of work?

The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, as presented in the American Society of Travel Agents’ 2008 outlook (PDF) offers an explanation: Travel agents are headed toward extinction. Their numbers have shrunk from 111,130 a decade ago to 85,580 in 2007, the last year for which numbers are available. What’s more, the government projects that the number of agents will remain flat through the middle of the next decade.

No wonder they’re upset. But they’re in good company.
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FAA official: “No mention whatsoever of the possibility that Billy Mays wasn’t wearing a seatbelt”

brownLaura 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?

Brown: No.

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.