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Airline cancels route – but what about my credits?

Bruce Leibowitz/Shutterstock
Bruce Leibowitz/Shutterstock
Nancy Palmer cancels her flight from Seattle to Baltimore. Then her airline stops flying from Seattle to Baltimore. So what happens with the ticket credit she was offered? Is her ticket really nonrefundable?

Question: I’m writing about a recent issue I had with AirTran Airways and Southwest Airlines and am wondering if you can help. Last April, I booked a flight through Expedia from Seattle, where I live, to Baltimore, to see my parents. I had to cancel the flight, scheduled for June of last year, and Expedia sent me an email saying I had $399 in flight credits through AirTran, to use within one year.

Just recently, I tried to book the same flight — Seattle to Baltimore — and called Expedia to use my flight credits. Expedia got AirTran to release the tickets back to them, but then Expedia staff told me they found out that AirTran no longer flies from Seattle to Baltimore, or from Seattle to anywhere.

I asked what I was supposed to do about my flight credits. They had no answer. I asked if I could get a refund from AirTran, since they no longer fly out of Seattle. Expedia staff got AirTran on the other line, and AirTran said “no refunds.”

I think, since they no longer fly here, this is a case where they should refund me the $399 for my flight credit. Do you think so? Can you help with this? — Nancy Palmer, Seattle

Answer: Normally, when an airline cancels a flight, you would be entitled to a full refund. But this isn’t a normal situation.

As you probably know, AirTran and Southwest have merged. AirTran is operating as a unit of Southwest, and Southwest most certainly does fly to Baltimore. But at the time this happened, AirTran was operating as a unit of Southwest and some of their internal systems hadn’t been fully integrated from the merger. That meant your vouchers were only good on AirTran.

The agent you spoke with might have tried to figure out a way around the internal corporate barriers instead of simply telling you “no refunds.”

I mean, what good is your ticket if you can’t use it? When you explained your dilemma to the AirTran agent, he or she should have been able to come up with a solution that worked for you. After all, AirTran canceled its flights. The fact that you’d postponed your initial trip should have made no difference.

But as a practical matter, it did. When you delay a flight, an airline will issue a ticket credit good for a full year from the date of your first booking. So now your money is converted to AirTran credits that expire, and that you can’t use.

I think if you’d taken a few more minutes to explain to the agent that he or she wasn’t seeing the big picture, it might have changed your choices. Also, I note that most of your communication took place by phone. Next time, try sending an email with your refund request, if for no other reason than to set up a paper trail.

I contacted Southwest on your behalf. It cut you a check for $399, the full value of your AirTran ticket to Baltimore.

Should airlines refund ticket vouchers when they stop flying on a desired route?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • TonyA_says

    The passenger should have asked for a full refund the fist time – when the flight was cancelled. Money is always better than a certificate.

  • sirwired

    She cancelled before the flight did. She hadn’t re-booked by the time the route was discontinued.

  • sirwired

    I don’t think you should get your flight credits converted to cash because a single route canceled. But if the airline as a whole no longer serves your “home city”? Then yes, a refund is appropriate.

    Southwest could have avoided this issue by making the voucher usable on Southwest flights…

  • backprop

    “Normally, when an airline cancels a flight, you would be entitled to a full refund. But this isn’t a normal situation.”

    Well, the airline didn’t cancel a flight. It stopped flying the route. It was the customer who canceled.

    I’m glad it worked out for the OP, but don’t feel it was Southwest’s responsibility to refund the voucher. It still had value.

  • mythsayer

    I got the impression that she couldn’t use the credits on southwest at all.

  • TonyA_says

    Yes you are right. I completely missed that one. Must be jet lag :)
    Essentially she is holding a certificate or funny money and NOT a ticket anymore. It can only be used for future scheduled flights and does not guarantee what those scheduled flights will be.

  • Blackadar

    Exactly. If SW doesn’t fly from Seattle, the credits are useless to the OP. A refund is justified in that case.

  • shannonfla

    I’m in a similar situation. I was voluntarily bumped from an AirTran flight out of FLL last year and got two free RT tickets that we have to book by 4/8. We were saving them for a Caribbean honeymoon or some other trip while we focused on wedding planning and buying a house. We started to look at some routes this month, only to discover AirTran has reduced flights or turned over routes to Southwest out of PHL, our base airport, as they transition to Southwest later this year. I asked and AirTran’s position right now is that I can’t use the vouchers for a Southwest route. Will either push for better resolution or settle for available AirTran flight. Or maybe just fly to FLL and fly to Caribbean out of there!

  • Thoroughlyamused

    It would be in SWA’s best interest to just let them use the vouchers on Southwest. The whole merger has gone waaaaaay too slowly. On another note the Airtran planes SUCK compared to the SWA planes and I fear that the Airtran planes will be integrated into the SWA fleet. Not good.

  • emanon256

    I feel like the bad guy here, but I don’t see why the airline should refund a non-refundable ticket. The OP bought a non-refundable ticket, and canceled on their own, and got a credit they can use for a year. Airlines change their routes all the time, its part of the risk of a non-refundable ticket.

    If I returned a product to store X because I realized I didn’t want it, and they gave me a store credit, and then several months later I decided I wanted it again and they no longer carried it, should I get a refund?

  • John Baker

    I was thinking the same thing!

  • Thoroughlyamused

    Not really. It’s part of the risk of buying a non-refundable ticket.

  • $16635417

    Southwest operates Seattle-Baltimore nonstop.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    I was thinking about this as well and here’s the solution: In the event of a cancellation (in real time), the airline has the option (and perhaps even obligation) to book the passenger onto another carrier. This basically means either the airline buys a ticket or usually trades or barters bumped passengers with each other.

    She should have simply gone to the airport and talked to the airtran front desk. If they are proper agents (not outsourced or shared), they should have been capable of finding such a solution on the spot even for a future flight and booking either on Southwest or another airline.

  • omgstfualready

    But she bought via a third party so the airlines shouldn’t even have to deal with her. But she bought a nonrefundable and wanted it refunded. We’re back to the typical story on this site again.

  • John Baker

    But here’s the rub … The airline didn’t cancel her flight… She cancelled. They issued her a credit. When she finally got around to traveling, they no longer flew out of the airport.

    I’m not sure how your solution changes that?

  • omgstfualready

    As soon as you read ‘bought through Expedia’ you should have realized that it would be a problem. Oh and someone buying a nonrefundable ticket and wanting, wait for it, a refund. wah.

  • MarkKelling

    Well, the OP didn’t want a refund. She just didn’t want to fly on the date originally booked and got a voucher for what she paid and then when she did want to fly the airline no longer served an airport near her. What she really wanted was to just use the flight credit on a different flight. But since Southwest is still not honoring Air Tran vouchers (why I don’t know since they are technically the same airline company now) and they now fly that route taken over from Air Tran what other choice is there?

  • PolishKnightUSA

    I see your point in that this is different than an irregular ops situation where the airline is at fault then they have the obligation to book the passenger on another airline. In the case of a credit issued to someone at their request, the airline can simply state that the product isn’t there anymore so they should just find something else to buy.

    Nonetheless, a reasonable airline agent should have been able to use that infrastructure to book them a ticket with a partner airline.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    In the words of the OP above, they were Airtran credits and not Expedia. Or worse, the credits were bound with both (Airtran credits that had to be administered by Expedia.)

    But yeah, I agree with you that this is a typical story on this site about dealing with Expedia and many third party booking sites. More complications than it’s worth. I’ve only used them when I have been booking open jaws that use multiple airlines where I couldn’t book direct with a single airline or carrier group.

  • John Baker

    Hmmm… My best way of looking at this was to taking it out of the travel world to the retail world…

    So I buy a xPad on sale from my local Sears. I opt to return it but the terms of the sale only allow me to get a store credit but it has to be used in a Sears store (no internet sales) which I accept. When I finally get ready to use the store credit, Sears no longer sells xPads. They sell other tablets but no longer xPads.

    I’m not sure why Sears should refund the money. You can still purchase other items (or fly to other destinations in this case) you just can’t purchase a xPad. It doesn’t matter that KMart (a Sears division) down the street sells xPad. The credit is for Sears.

    It’s nice that the OP got her money back but it may cause Airtran to reconsider if they will continue to issue credits. If that happens, everyone loses.

  • Guest

    I just checked their website. Airtran still flies out of Seattle

  • Chris Johnson

    I didn’t vote on the poll because that is too simple a question and I think it really depends on the situation. I’d say Yes if the airline quit the route before the passenger cancelled and No if the passenger cancelled before the airline quit the route.
    Southwest was WAY too nice to her in this case – if they fly from Seattle to Baltimore, why couldn’t they just have her use the vouchers on Southwest? I can only guess it had something to do with the integration between Southwest and Airtran’s systems not being quite complete and their computers rejecting any Airtran vouchers. Who knows. Then in that case, maybe a refund is warranted, unless perhaps, she could just drive or fly to another city that Airtran flies and go from there. But it looks like she’d have had to go to Oakland to do it that way.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    I’m confused because I just checked Airtran’s website and it is still showing flights out of Seattle. It appears the flights to Baltimore are all on Southwest, but you can still take Airtran to Reagan International in D.C. which is fairly close. At any rate, the claim in the letter that Airtran no longer flies from Seattle appears to be incorrect. And that changes the situation a lot. I think Southwest was very generous to issue a refund. And it’s puzzling why they did so rather than just convert the voucher over to themselves. Internal processes won’t allow that, possibly?

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    I checked AirTran’s website and put in the latest June date that I could, with a July return, thinking maybe the OP was trying to go visit her parents at the same time of year as she originally booked. The website sent me off to Southwest’s site. I tried with a late March date, with a return in April a week later. No flights available – sold out. Tried again 1 month later, it sent me off to Southwest’s site. Either the OP was trying for a date where AirTran was sold out, or had become Southwest.

    I think Southwest should be on the hook for any vouchers/credits that hadn’t expired when it took over AirTran operations. But, I don’t see where the OP nor Expedia didn’t simply ask Southwest to honor those credits. ???

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    See my response to @Joe_D_Messina:disqus.

  • bodega3

    While Air Tran was purchased by Southwest, they have operated separately. So she purchased a ticket on Air Tran, she got a voucher only good with Air Tran. Since Air Tran no longer has flights from Seattle, she qualified for the full refund.

  • bodega3

    Southwest and Air Tran do not accept each others vouchers. While they are owned by one company, they operate as two.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Good detective work. I agree that when carriers are merging it should all become one pool and obligations from one should become the obligations of the other. Financially, it would definitely look to be in Southwest’s best interest to take over those credits rather than hand the OP a check. I can only guess their processes don’t play well together and they had no good way to make that happen?

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Sticking with the store example, what essentially happened is the store was taken over by a different owner. It’s not Joe’s Electronics any more, but Bob’s Electronics. And Bob carries the exact same item that Joe did. Bob (Southwest) did the right thing to honor Joe’s obligation. But what I find strange is that rather than just give the OP a store credit at the new store, they handed over a check. Great deal for the OP, but rather odd Southwest didn’t just take over the credits.

  • Dane Carpenter

    I think the pole question is incorrect. I think the questions should be: Should airline credits through an airline that was merged with another airline be honored by the other airline?

    That is essentially the problem here. Southwest should be honoring AirTran credits since it merged with AirTran. Southwest Airlines has taken over AirTran’s routes since the merger. It should be honoring their debts, vouchers, and credits that AirTran had before the merger.

    It would be like me having a Food 4 Less grocery store gift card pre Kroger purchase and expecting to use at Food 4 Less that was converted into a Kroger after the purchase of Food 4 Less. There is probably some Food 4 Less stores that haven’t been converted yet, but I shouldn’t be expected to drive 200 miles out of the way just to use a $50 gift card.

  • bodega3

    What you think and how this works is completely different. These are two separately run carriers for now.

  • bodega3

    Her ticket was for FL and that is who will only accept it. These are accountable documents and that I how it works. She qualified for a refund and she got it.

  • Daddydo

    Airlines MUST refund any type of tickets and / or credits when they cancel a route. You just have to ask for it. If we are not able to re-accomodate the customer on a different flight, we ever refund the office service fee.

  • mythsayer

    At the same time, she seems to fly that route a lot because her parents are in Baltimore. Airlines always give credits to be used later, and she was fine with that. If it then becomes useless, is that really a risk she agreed to? She agreed to the risk of getting credits, not getting nothing. If airlines never gave credits, I’d agree. In this case, I think she is either due a refund or a transfer of the credits to SW.

  • mythsayer

    I didn’t look. I’m taking her at her word that it doesn’t. Maybe it says AirTran but it’s really southwest when they merged.

  • emanon256

    Agreed, I think they should have let them use the credit on WN. Though, in their defense, FL (AirTran) does have a direct flight to a nearby airport, and they have connecting flights to the final destination, so the OP had options.

    I think, (and this is only a guess, but I have worked in accounting system integration for years and have seen this problem with mergers) that they currently have separate accounting systems, and separate bank systems, which makes using a voucher on one system extremely complex to use on another system until they get the infrastructure in place. By extremely complex, I mean someone in A/P at FL would have to do a manual journal entry and cut a check to WN, and then WN would have to deposit the check and do a manual journal entry, and with automated accounting system, that is going to be a complex time consuming task, so complex, that most companies make it their policy to not do it.

  • John Baker

    If she held a ticket on a flight that was then cancelled, you are correct. She didn’t. She cancelled her flight. They issued her a credit. At a later date when she wanted to fly the route, it wasn’t available.

    They didn’t have to refund her

  • Thoroughlyamused

    I agree with you that the best option for all involved is a transfer of the credits to Southwest. That being said, non refundable means non refundable. Can you imagine the mess of determining whether a credit is useful or not? I currently live in Montgomery County, MD. If I book a flight out of BWI and then cancel and receive a voucher, then decide to move to South Dakota (where SWA doesn’t fly), should I be able to argue that I should receive a refund?

  • emanon256

    Ha! See my post to you above. My guess is the same, in fact, it was probably cheaper to give the OP a refund than transfer the credit.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    I don’t see from Chris’s response where she actually qualified for a refund. It appears to me from how he worded the response that Southwest stepped up and did the right thing though they weren’t actually obligated to do so. Or am I missing something?

  • MarkKelling

    But you can book a flight on either carrier from either carrier’s web site. You can collect frequent flyer points for either airline no matter which one you fly on. Several airports have one or the other counter and gate agents that support both airline’s flights. And the kicker: you can book a flight on either airline using the other frequent flyer points. So are they truly operating as separate airlines? And if the frequent flyer points are interchangable, why not flight credits?

  • Dane Carpenter

    I would agree with you, but the AirTran website redirects you to Southwest Airlines for certain flights when trying to book. They may be operating as seperate carriers, but they are also operating as a partnership. It appears AirTran is just trying to fulfill some of it’s obligations before Southwest takes over all of AirTran’s flights

    “All AirTran planes will eventually integrate into the Southwest brand forming a single network, reservation system, and loyalty program. Combined, Southwest and AirTran serve 97 destinations in the United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

    Our plan is to have AirTran completely integrated into Southwest Airlines by the end of 2014.”

    http://www.southwest.com/html/air/intl/intl-hub.html

  • mythsayer

    I see your point. I think the problem here, though, is that air tran basically ceased to exist by merging. I think if you were going to travel 20 hours or whatever long distance to a far away airport and you cancel, that’s on you. You can still travel to the far airport to use the credit. I think the distinction here is that the credit became entirely useless to my reading. That’s the only reason I think this situation is a little different. I agree we shouldn’t be using a subjective standard.

  • backprop

    Good point. After all, “the credit is worthless to you” then.

  • Thoroughlyamused

    Do you have any idea as to why this is? Not doubting it, just asking. I used Rapid Rewards points to book a roundtrip BWI-FLL a few weeks ago. The outgoing flight was on Airtran and the return on SWA. Why can’t they have their vouchers do the same?

  • Travelnut

    emanon, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. I have experience in accounting systems myself. Heck, it’s a big deal at my company for all the changes that are required when we have an internal reorganization or add an internal subsidiary. For a merger, that would be a complex IT project.

    With that said… if I get a voucher that is supposed to be good for a year, and before that year is up the company is acquired and this makes it impossible for me to use my voucher within that year, the voucher becomes worthless to me. The terms under which I accepted the voucher have become void. Your corporate merger is not within my control, the fact that it is a huge undertaking to marry up your respective accounting systems is not my concern, and this should not be “a risk I assume” when I accept a voucher. I think Air Tran did the only thing they could do – refund the money.

  • omgstfualready

    But when you book on Southwest, if it is an AirTran leg, it is clear that all AirTran fees apply. They are using one site but operationally they are unique.

  • bodega3

    I have always been able to obtain a refund on unused funds for clients when a carrier pulls out of the airport the clients had originally been scheduled to fly from.

  • bodega3

    It is how they are set up. A voucher is an accountable document issued under one carrier’s code. That code has to match with same carrier. I don’t make the rules, but I have to follow them!

  • Alan Gore

    If you move away from the airline’s service area, no. In this case, the airline “moved away from the passenger,” no longer serving her city. She definitely gets a refund.

  • bodega3

    That isn’t how airline’s work. All monies to be reused are done with accountable documents. Can you imagine the fraud that would come around with something as intricate as you are suggesting?

  • Thoroughlyamused

    It’s funny how some people state their personal opinion as though it is absolute fact.

    The ticket is NON-REFUNDABLE. I don’t know why you frequently advocate that customers should be able to buy non-refundable tickets then renege on what they agreed to. Purchasing the ticket does not mean that the airline is legally bound to serve that city forever nor should it. You take risks when you buy a non-refundable ticket and this is one of them.

  • bodega3

    Except, that if the carrier can’t offer the passenger a flight from the originating airport any longer and there isn’t a common rated airport (think SFO and OAK), the carrier can and does give the money back, so Alan is correct on this.

  • Thoroughlyamused

    You are correct IF the carrier initiates the cancellation. Show me in the COC where it says that when a carrier stops serving a destination that all cancelled non-refundable tickets automatically become fully refundable.

  • bodega3

    I call the TA desk and they approve it. There are a lot of rules and things that we are allowed to do that are not listed in the COC. We also have the ARC handbook that helps us with things that the airline’s don’t list.

  • JH

    In this case, there was no AirTran desk because it does nort service Seattle.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    some people are never happy. What part of non-refundable don’t u understand ?

    You’ve got a credit to use on any flights they operate. Be very happy.

    Australia’s biggest airline, the dinosaur Qantas is about to go belly up. Be glad that doesn’t happen to Southwest/Air Tran or your credit will be worthless.

    Use your credit low, on any route you can.

  • bodega3

    But if they pull out of the originating city, you get your money back. Which is what most people would like first.

  • Thoroughlyamused

    While you can’t book the SEA-BWI route you can certainly book SEA-ATL and then separately ATL-BWI on the Airtran website. Maybe a little inconvenient but that hardly makes the voucher worthless, or worthy of a non-refundable ticket being refunded.

  • Thoroughlyamused

    I did some more digging and found you can book SEA-ATL and then ATL-BWI all using the Airtran website which presumably means you could use a voucher to book. So this is not a case where FL pulled out of the originating city altogether, but rather discontinued the trip which was most advantageous to her. I don’t think the airline has an obligation, legal or otherwise, to guarantee that when a voucher is issued to preserve the same routing forever and quite frankly, I think this lady is being some what of an opportunist in order to get her non-refundable ticket refunded.

  • Thoroughlyamused

    If you can book it using the Airtran website then you are able to use an Airtran voucher regardless of who the operating carrier is. I used the Southwest website to book using Rapid Rewards points and half the itinerary was on Airtran. What matters here is the booking channel.

  • bodega3

    According to my GDS the flight from SEA is on WN. The flight number is a code share, so not sure it would be permitted as it isn’t a true FL flight. Therefore, the full refund would be allowed and was.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    why ????

    The credit is not a route special credit, it’s a dollar value.

  • bodega3

    Because you have to be able to fly from your home airport to be able to use it. Makes sense.

  • Thoroughlyamused

    The refund was given as a special exception and not as SOP. We have all seen that if customers whine loudly and persistently enough they can usually get their way. Also, you can use a LUV voucher from SWA on the Southwest website to book an Airtran flight. I find it difficult to believe that Airtran works differently. So really the OP wanted a refund because they took away her most direct travel method. Not a valid reason for refunding a non-refundable ticket.

  • bodega3

    The SEA to MDW portion to get to ATL is on WN. Then the flight from MDW to ATL is FL. The OP qualified for a refund.

  • bodega3

    Not a special exception. She qualified.

  • Thoroughlyamused

    How did she qualify? Because the airline decided to cancel one particular route?

  • bodega3

    If the carrier doesn’t offer the routing any longer from your point of departure, they will give a refund. When I pull up SEA to ATL it is WN to MDW and FL to ATL. You can’t use a FL voucher on a WN operated flight. This could change, but for now it has to be a true FL flight.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    ah, no you don’t. You make no sense at all !!!

  • bodega3

    Let see if you get this. I live in the State of California. If a carrier pulled out of all but LAX and I live in the San Francisco area, just because the carrier still has flights, doesn’t mean I can get to LAX to utilize my unused fare. Therefore, the carrier will refund in full the ticket cost. Since the OP had canceled her ticket, then the carrier no longer flew from her home airport, she could get a refund. I have obtained refunds for clients in cases like this with no problem.

  • Sometime_flier

    Your analogy isn’t quite right, though. To make the situation comparable, you would have to discover that you no longer had a brick and mortar Sears store anywhere and so had no possibility of using that Sears credit because the Kmart wouldn’t accept it. You would be out the amount of the credit for no reason of your own but rather because Sears closed its store.