No refund for a sick passenger?

Markus Mainka /
Markus Mainka /
After Merrill Hakim is diagnosed with lung cancer, she asks her airline for a refund on a non-refundable ticket. But is that allowed?

Question: I have tickets on Aer Lingus to fly from Dublin to Paris. I was diagnosed with lung cancer a few weeks before we were due to leave.

I had no problem getting a refund for our transatlantic flight with United Airlines, but Aer Lingus was only willing to refund the taxes unless I could reschedule within 30 days. Given the situation, that was not possible. They said the ticket would still have been good until the end of April, which is when we bought them, but who can make a commitment at a time like this?

I have no idea what my situation will be in April or any time before. Not yet, anyway, and certainly not in the 30 days they were willing to give me. Thanks for anything you can accomplish. — Merrill Hakim, Philadelphia

Answer: Good for United for refunding your non-refundable ticket. Aer Lingus should have done the same, but it didn’t have to.

You booked a non-refundable ticket with significant restrictions. An airline will tell you that you always have the option of buying a more expensive ticket that can be refunded, but those tickets can cost twice as much as the non-refundable variety. For most leisure travelers, that’s impractical (indeed, the tickets are meant for business travelers on a corporate expense account).

Airlines sometimes waive their ticket restrictions, issuing refunds when a passenger dies or a close relative of a passenger dies, or when you’re in the military and your orders change. But again, they are not required to do that. A serious illness like lung cancer can be a reason for refunding a non-refundable ticket. In my opinion, it should be.

Incidentally, airlines let themselves off the hook from their agreements with passengers for all kinds of reasons, including bad weather or events “beyond their control.” They aren’t required to operate a flight on time, or at all, and the penalties — if any — are negligible. I don’t have a problem asking an airline to waive its rules when it has little problem waiving a rule for itself.

I see that you tried to contact Aer Lingus by phone and then in writing, but the airline wouldn’t budge for you. I sent you some higher-level contacts at the airline, but that didn’t work either. The answer remained a firm “no.”

I contacted Aer Lingus on your behalf and asked it to review your request one more time. It did, and decided to issue a full refund.

Should Aer Lingus have refunded Merrill Hakim's ticket?

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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 . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Jeff Kolker

    I am glad you did fine a compassionate response, and hope your health has greatly improved! And I hope that if any of us find ourselves in the same situation, we are treated with an equally compassionate response.

  • Merrill Hakim

    Thanks very much. I am improved and am in a holding pattern, which I hope keeps on holding! And I also hope that more companies will be more compassionate .

  • Christopher Elliott

    Merrill, I’m so happy you were able to join the discussion! Glad you are doing well, too.

  • Merrill Hakim

    Thank you so much! You perform such a valuable service. I’m glad I stumbled on this discussion and this part of the site.

  • Petteri Räty

    I have a continuous travel insurance policy. Costs about 50 euros a year (I live in Finland). Maybe it’s much more expensive there but at least with our prices it’s stupid not to buy one. You can get one that covers you always when you go 50km away from your home.

  • Londoner1936

    So how much did you pay? I do not accept the statement that “Aer Lingus is no where as cheap as Ryanair” and Aer Lingus still is a competitor, thus many of the usual extra charges that Ryanair are also imposed by Aer Lingus. Ryanair does not believe in “service” so the competition on that score is easily won by Aer Lingus – but how much does that count for on such a short flight, DUB to CDG ?

  • Merrill Hakim

    WE have flown both and Ryanair was always a lot cheaper even with the add ons. I seem to think it was about $250 euros. It was a year ago and I’m not going to dig through records to try to find it.

  • Merrill Hakim

    I’ve never heard of that. Sounds like a good idea.

  • Travelnut

    That’s interesting, that along with Chris mediating your case, you weren’t informed that your story would be featured on the website and what day to expect to see it. I thought that was all part of the deal. Especially since once it’s on the website, I’d think you would want to read the comments. Lucky you that your story was chosen! (Mine was not. I still don’t understand the reasoning, since I’ve seen similar stories here since; but on the other hand, now that I’ve followed the site for a couple of years, I’ve seen some of the unkind comments, and maybe it’s not worth it for a couple hundred bucks.)

    Best wishes for your good health, and I hope you can travel to Ireland someday. It’s a beautiful country.

  • Mel65

    True, but maybe it’s my military upbringing that makes me a chronic rule follower… :)

  • Mel65

    True, but had the situation not resolved, we’d have swallowed the cost because we definitively selected “No Thanks” for the insurance and weren’t willing to pay the Fully Refundable Fare price. But, as I said ^^ there… I’m a chronic rule follower. It’s a curse sometimes!

  • Merrill Hakim

    Since this all happened about a year ago, I think it was before Chris set up the web site, but I could be wrong about that. In any case, I had only ever seen his columns in the newspaper, and I wasn’t told it would be on this site. I do subscribe to his posts though so I saw it when it popped up, and was able to respond. I’m not sure you should be sorry your story didn’t make it. It is amazing how callous some people can be! Thanks for your good wishes. I did get to Ireland. We repeated the trip we were supposed to have made exactly a year later, living from scan to scan. My husband is Irish so we go or went quite often, and I love it there.

  • Lindabator

    Annual policies are popular with corporate clients and those that travel extensively.

  • Lindabator

    Good point – but if the airline had still said no, I can live with that too!

  • Lindabator

    Unfortunately – not for the person with the sick dog or flat tire – to THEM it is an exception they want compassion for as well.

  • Lindabator

    You make a lot of assumptions you don’t understand a thing about coming up with that total. There are things behind the scenes you DON’T see. I’m glad he was refunded in this case, but if they had stuck to their guns, would not have blamed them either.

  • Mel65

    I didn’t say, or I think, even imply, that it was necessarily a “bad thing” simply that it takes a level of gall to ask for a refund for something that is explicitly non-refundable. I choose not to be “that person” because I have a low level of “chutzpah” … that’s all. I’m happy-ish that the OP got what they wanted; I’d be happier if they’d done the right thing and bought insurance or a refundable fare in the first place. :)