Answer: I’m sorry to hear about your husband’s condition. At a time like this, United should show some compassion — or, at the very least, be consistent in its responses to you.
The rules of your ticket purchase are not in question. If you cancel your flight, you can rebook for up to a year from the date of your booking, minus a change fee and any fare differential. That rule renders many airline tickets worthless, because the change fee and fare differential is greater than the ticket credit, but it is an industry standard among the legacy carriers.
But rules are meant to be bent. As a matter of policy, United will refund a nonrefundable ticket if you die or if the person you’re traveling with dies. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. I’ve seen airlines balk at refunding tickets even when they’re shown a death certificate.
Why are airlines so strict? Because the rule makes money. For years, passengers could get a change fee waived for any reason, or any excuse. Finally, the airline industry clamped down on this loophole with a new policy called “no waivers, no favors.”
United’s first response was correct. When a representative offers a refund, be sure to get their name and extension, and if possible, ask them to send you an email documenting the promise. Sending a request through the website — a necessary first step in resolving many airline grievances — almost always results in a by-the-book form response.
Then United gave you yet another answer in a follow-up phone conversation. Pretty confusing, isn’t it?
I think you would have been better off keeping your refund request in writing. After the form rejection, you could have responded to a manager (I list their names on my customer service wiki, onyoursi.de/wiki) and provided any medical documentation necessary.
I contacted United on your behalf. It agreed to offer you a refund, minus a $50 “processing fee,” which was a better offer, but still not quite the refund you were hoping for. But when you called United, it agreed to waive all of the fees and issue a full refund.
Here’s wishing your husband a quick recovery.