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

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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?

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