Oh, for the last time – nonrefundable means nonrefundable (except when it doesn’t)

Pamela Mason knew her US Airways ticket to California was nonrefundable. But she thought her circumstances — she became seriously ill after “contracting something nasty in Mexico” that landed her in the emergency room — was reason for it to bend a rule.

Oh, and she read a story about another passenger who I’d helped with a refund on a nonrefundable ticket.

The request went to our busy resolutions department, where Will Leeper, our volunteer coordinator, reviewed the specifics of her request.

“I called my travel agent the day prior to the flight to cancel for all four of us,” explains Mason. “After being bed-ridden for two weeks, I finally contacted US Airways for refunds via the website and conferred with your site to see what other recourse may be possible. I got emails denying all four refunds.”

Mason had sent US Airways doctor’s notes that verified her medical condition, but it didn’t seem to matter.

I wonder about her “agent.” A competent travel adviser would have told Mason’s family that, absent any trip insurance, their best bet would be to ask for a ticket credit, which could be used up to a year from the date of the original reservation.

Instead, she apparently just canceled the flights, which were totally nonrefundable. That’s like telling the airline: Hey, we’re going to give you all the money for the tickets and offer you the opportunity to resell the seats.

US Airways should be grateful.

But it wasn’t.

Leeper saw no way out, except perhaps an appeal to someone higher up at the airline for a one-time exception to its rules.

“Unfortunately, nonrefundable almost always means exactly what it says — it can’t be refunded,” he wrote.

He added,

There are often provisions in fare rules that allow changes to be made in the event of a medical emergency (or vouchers issuable for the amount of the tickets, without a deduction of the applicable change fees), but generally speaking, the fare rules (which are agreed to when you purchase the ticket) do not allow nonrefundable tickets to suddenly become refundable in the event of a medical condition.

I’m sorry I couldn’t have better news.

That was the right answer. To which she replied:

So who are you exactly? Would the doctor’s letter, medical records and CT scan from the hospital be helpful? My doctor is ready to provide all documents.

Leeper explained that he was one of several volunteers who help answer questions from readers. He continued,

While I am terribly sorry to hear about your medical condition, and I wish you a full and speedy recovery, if you didn’t purchase travel insurance, the most the airline will usually offer are travel vouchers for the amount you paid which can be used within one year of the date you originally booked your travel.

Mason was unhappy with that answer.

So the “stories” I read on the website, blogs, facebook are bunk? Not trying to be pejorative, but I see a lot of similarities between my situation and the story of the lady who couldn’t fly to her cruise due to hospitalization just recently posted.

Is it all just a shell game to boost readership and garner contributions?

At that point, I jumped in.

Ms. Mason, I’m going to ask the airline about your case, but I’m fairly confident that Will is correct. They will also tell us “no.” But I’m more than willing to check on your behalf.

Please bear in mind, we can’t force a travel company to do anything.

And yes, I asked. And the answer was a fast and hard “no.” My contact said she should have bought insurance on her ticket.

Case closed.

As I’ve explained to my resolutions team time and again, the best way to avoid becoming the target of a passenger’s anger is to allow the airline to say “no.” That may be a cop-out, but it’s true that if I had my way, airline policies would be far more customer-friendly than they are.

There’s no reason a fully refundable airline ticket can’t be affordable, or that airline rules can’t be a little more flexible. After all, the airline industry is sinking its teeth into record-setting ancillary revenues — and profits.

US Airways apparently had second thoughts about its “no.” After initially rejecting her request, it sent her a follow-up email that said “based on the circumstances you have described and as a one time courtesy, I have documented your reservation to waive the change fee.”

“We are thrilled and thankful for the blessing,” Mason told me.

Should US Airways have waived Pamela Mason's change fee?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Is the American-US Airways merger delivering on its promises?

The new American Airlines — the product of last year’s controversial merger between American and US Airways — may only be a few months old, but that hasn’t stopped travelers from forming opinions about the world’s largest airline.

The carrier, based in Dallas, has made some noteworthy changes since it settled a lawsuit with the Justice Department in December, clearing the new American for takeoff. Among them: revising some of its frequent-flier benefits, small but important changes to the way it sells flights, and new ticket policies.

“Significant benefits for customers are already being delivered,” says American spokesman John McDonald.
Continue reading…

Why is US Airways so un-American?

Jorg Hackemann /
Jorg Hackemann /
If you read nothing more than the headline of this story, you might think this is another rant about the evils of airline consolidation — a consolidation that, by the way, isn’t over yet.

But it isn’t. Instead, I’m thinking about how to respond to a complaint I received from Mark Ellerman, a passenger on a recent flight from Phoenix to Chicago. Actually, so are all of the volunteer advocates who work with me.

We just don’t know what to tell him.
Continue reading…

What to do when your airline betrays you

Markus Mainka /
Markus Mainka /
To call Ron Giancoli a loyal US Airways customer might be something of an understatement. A sales manager from West Chester, Pa., he’s flown on the airline — which recently merged with American Airlines — almost exclusively for the last three decades.

“I flew US Airways even when it wasn’t the lowest price,” he says. “I flew US Airways even when it was a less convenient schedule.”

Giancoli says he’s been an elite-level customer for 27 out of the last 30 years. He stuck with US Airways through good times and bad, through bankruptcies, reorganizations and customer service meltdowns. In exchange for his loyalty, US Airways offered him upgrades into more comfortable seats and award tickets.
Continue reading…

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.
Continue reading…

After brother’s death, where’s my airfare refund?

Jorg Hackemann /
Jorg Hackemann /
After Irene Reitman’s brother passes away, she cancels her trip to Las Vegas. But American Airlines won’t refund her fare. Why not?

Question: My husband and I were recently scheduled to fly from Chicago to Las Vegas on American Airlines. Unfortunately, my brother died shortly before we left, and we canceled our non-refundable tickets.

I subsequently noticed on the American website that non-refundable tickets could be refunded due to a death in the immediate family. I called the refund services desk for many days and could never get through to a real person. The message on this phone was “Due to circumstances beyond our control, we can’t answer the phone right now, call back later.”
Continue reading…

Let’s unmerge a few airlines

The Justice Department’s settlement agreement with American Airlines and US Airways, which will finally allow the carriers to merge, is taking the airline industry in the wrong direction, say many travelers.

The government, you’ll recall, sued to stop the latest mega-airline from being created this summer, citing competitive concerns. It only green-lit the deal after the airlines promised to surrender gates and landing permissions at several busy airports.

But it’s not what some passengers wanted. Instead, they hoped regulators would go the other way, blocking a wrongheaded merger and maybe undoing a few previous mergers, too.

That’s right, they want to unmerge a few airlines.
Continue reading…

Hey US Airways, do you really want my eyeball to explode on a plane?

Jennene Colky can’t fly because she has a detached retina. Why won’t US Airways refund her ticket?

Question: I was recently forced to cancel a round-trip ticket between Chicago and Bangor, Maine, on US Airways, for which I paid $494, including a $50 seat upgrade charge.

About a month before I was to fly, I had emergency surgery for a detached retina in which a gas bubble was inserted in my eye to hold the retina in place during the healing process. This meant that I could not fly or even travel to elevations over 1,000 feet. Two of the airlines on which I had flights — United and US Airways — asked for medical documentation of my surgery, which I sent them.

United, bless their little hearts, fully refunded the cost of my ticket to my credit card within days. But US Airways took a different view, refusing to refund the fare.

The facts are that my eye would have exploded at a high altitude, even in a pressurized cabin, and I had a letter from a retinal specialist attesting to this. If exploding eyeballs aren’t a good enough reason to credit or refund the entire amount of an airline ticket, just what is?
Continue reading…

“Unintentional things can and do happen during flights”

Before I tell you about Justin Cohen’s case, there are one or two things he wants everyone to know. He likes kids. He’s a former teacher and has a “high tolerance” for unruly youngsters.

Except maybe on an overseas flight where he’s seated next to a kid that doesn’t stop whimpering, whining and screaming for the entire trip.

That’s exactly what happened to Cohen last week. He says he was seated next to an enfant terrible on a US Airways flight from London to Philadelphia, and he wants to know if he can be compensated for the torture. His final destination was Dayton, Ohio, and his connecting flight was uneventful, he says.
Continue reading…

Should US Airways compensate me for a lodging error?

Markus Mainka /
Markus Mainka /
Ken Middleton and his girlfriend were flying back to the mainland after enjoying a vacation in Hawaii. At least, they were supposed to be. But their US Airways flight was canceled because of a mechanical problem and they were rebooked on a flight 24 hours later.

Ah, 24 extra hours in Hawaii. What to do? I can think of a few things.

Well, US Airways describes what it should do in its contract of carriage, the legal agreement between Middleton and the carrier.
Continue reading…

Should my airline compensate me for a lost cruise?

Andrew Gentry/Shutterstock
Andrew Gentry/Shutterstock

It started with a simple misunderstanding.

Christine Lagasse and her companions had checked in for their early morning US Airways flight from Manchester, NH, to Philadelphia, enroute to a Caribbean cruise. They walked to the gate indicated on the boarding passes they’d printed at the airline counter.

Or so they thought.

“Our boarding passes showed that our gate was number 9,” she says. “We were all sitting there wondering why there weren’t many people around and when it got to be 4:50 a.m., we didn’t see anyone at the podium.”

That’s because their gate had been moved, minus any announcements. By the time they discovered the change, it was too late.
Continue reading…