No refund for a sick United passenger?

Question: Last year, my husband and I bought round-trip tickets to fly from Pittsburgh to Houston on United Airlines.

A few weeks later, my husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor. We originally thought he could still make the trip, but after his biopsy, it was clear he couldn’t go. His doctor wrote a letter stating that he had advised canceling this trip.

United was very sympathetic at first, and said that they would issue a full refund. They asked me to send a request through their website. I received an email a week later, saying they would allow us to cancel the ticket, pay a $50 change fee per ticket, and have up to a year to rebook the flights.

I called United and they said that they could either waive the $50 re-booking fee, or refund my husband’s part of the reservation. I sent an email back to the airline explaining that we’d like a refund of our nonrefundable tickets.

Quite honestly, my husband is currently in the how-bad-is-bad stage of the diagnosis process. There is no treatment plan yet. It is brain cancer. We have no plans to travel anywhere for the foreseeable future.

Is this something that you would be interested in helping us sort out? — Susan Fuhrman, Pittsburgh

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, 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.

Should United have refunded Susan Fuhrman'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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  • sirwired

    This case is a “both yes and no.”

    Once United promised to issue a refund, it should have done so, period.

    That said, saying “no” to begin with, and sticking with it, would have been an acceptable answer. A non-refundable ticket does not become a refundable one because you have a “good reason.” Most people that cancel a trip do so because of a good reason; if you want the flexibility that would enable you to get a refund under such circumstances, you need to buy a refundable ticket. The airline knows that a significant number of people with nonrefundable tickets will have to change or cancel their plans, and this is baked into the price of the ticket (and it’s also the reason airlines overbook.) If the rules were changed so that airlines had to issue refunds under such circumstances, I doubt the airlines would even put up much of a fight; they’d just adjust airfares accordingly, and every passenger would pay.

    For a major trip, such as a long cruise or vacation to the other side of the world, I’d say “buy trip insurance”, but that’s clearly silly for a simple and cheap advance-purchase domestic trip. Even a refundable ticket is pretty pricey “insurance”, so really the answer is that sometimes “life happens” and there is no solution that will satisfy everybody.

  • Leslie

    The same thing happened to me in April. I was diagnosed with cancer and had to cancel my trip to my nephews graduation. I got my Dr to write a letter and within two weeks, United refunded my fare less the $50 fee – which is clearly stated on their website. What did these people want? I’m confused

  • BillCCC

    I voted no but I am happy that United refunded the money.

  • Leslie

    I re-read the post again…the couple are mad over a $50 processing fee?? United very clearly states that illness is a basis for refund of a ticket (less $50) provided you give the proof. Like I said, I had no problems in April when I had to cancel my trip. United made the refund to me with no muss no fuss

  • Pat

    I am VERY sorry about the illness. HOWEVER, that’s why you buy travel insurance or buy a refundable ticket. When you buy non-refundable you are taking a chance that you may not be able to make that flight – and you took the chance anyway. American did nothing wrong here in my view. (I don’t expect it to be popular)

  • Karen

    The problem is that the first representative told her she would receive a FULL refund. If that was not the policy, that rep shouldn’t have promised the client that.

  • Life Lessons Military Wife

    I agree partly with sirwired below that once an airline promises something, they really need to follow thru. I also believe that more people should have travel cancellation insurance. Most Europeans have yearly policies that cost VERY little that cover up to a certain amount of insurance, say $6,000 per incident. It boggles my mind that this is not standard in the US? Can anyone answer why not?

  • Alan Gore

    Wasn’t death of the passenger always an automatic refund situation?

    Not now, apparently. I’m convinced that airline execs meet over to squab and cigars and try to outdo each other with “Ha ha – screw you!” changes to the rules.

  • TonyA_says

    Hey Pat, it was United not American. Maybe they will merge :-)

  • TonyA_says

    Good question. You can buy an annual plan from Allianz a German company.

  • Christopher Elliott

    I’m working on the site this morning. You may see the dreaded pop-up. Please pay no attention to it (unless, of course, you aren’t signed up for my email newsletter yet).

  • cjr001

    Sadly, compassion is all but dead in the business world.

  • cjr001

    To put the shoe on the other foot:
    United is being anal over a $50 ‘processing’ fee that their rep said they wouldn’t have to pay??

  • lost_in_travel

    I just looked at the Allianz website and it is amazing – I received an annual plan price for myself at $389. Then I checked to see what a single trip plan cost would be assuming $10,000 for a month long trip and the rate varied from $540 to $890 depending upon the plan. With only a very quick glance at coverages it took the high priced single plan to match the much lower cost annual plan. Much more sensible to get an annual plan. The annual plan had $250,000 coverage for medical evacuation. I need to look more closely at this and seriously read the fine print. Thanks, TonyA !

  • technomage1

    Good to know.

  • judynagy

    If the rules were changed so that airlines had to issue refunds under such circumstances, I doubt the airlines would even put up much of a fight; they’d just adjust airfares accordingly, and every passenger would pay.
    The above comment exactly describes the problem … Americans want low fares but don’t want to pay for that privilege. Americans complained for years about airline food being inedible, now they complain about having to pay for food on flights. UA is a business and it’s first duty is to make a profit. If they’re going to charge $300 to fly me from SF to New York, they have to make a profit elsewhere and they do on change fees and re-selling seats that have already been paid for. It would be helpful if airline agents all followed the procedures instead of telling someone they could have a refund when the rules clearly state that the tix are non-refundable. I remember having to cancel 2 tix on Virgin Atlantic because of a physical problem last spring … I couldn’t rebook until I knew when I could fly again. When I asked that the cancellation fee be waived, the agent told me I would have to be dead in order to get a full refund. At least I knew exactly where I stood and didn’t spend months trying to get something that an agent had promised me.

  • Pollo

    It’s sad but UA are following their own rules which are available for all to see

    There are too many cases here of people expecting Chris to get airlines to waive rules

  • bodega3

    When you make the decision to purchase a nonrefundable airline ticket, you are saying you are willing to take a risk on something happening which would prevent you from using that ticket. There are other fares that give you no restrictions so you are making a financial decision on the lower fare. Therefore, if a carrier decides to waiver their restrictions due to your circumstance that you present to them, that is a bonus. It they don’t, then you knew going into the purchase the restrictions and have to be prepared to accept them. One way to protect yourself is to take out travel insurance, but it doesn’t cover all reasons for a refund.

    If the carrier tells a traveler that with proper documentation that a refund could be obtained (which in circumstances like this I have never had a carrier turn a client down) and the traveler sends it in, unless the carrier has a reason to believe it is fradulent, they should honor it and the first call should have been documented in the PNR as proof for the OP. All calls are entered into a PNR and a printout of history should be able to be obtained.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Saw the dreaded pop-up; thanks for the warning. But what scares me more is the “Recommended for you” section, referring me to a “story” on “The Most Outrageous Things Katy Perry Has Worn On Her Chest”. How did the site know that was *just* what I’d like to read? :-D

  • Extramail

    And, then when you try to use the insurance you get denied because of the fine print . . .and Chris stills gets a call for help!

  • Terri Lundberg

    Though I feel terrible about what they’re going through, a non-refundable ticket is a non-refundable ticket. Christopher, when someone writes you and tells you they purchased a non-refundable ticket, and they now want a refund, I think it’s not even worth your time. Not that it is really my place to tell you what is worth your time, but there are consumers with real issues getting screwed by some corporation that may require your assistance versus someone who is being cheap by (1) purchasing a non-refundable ticket and (2) complaining about a $50 change fee. I think she should consider herself lucky to get away with the $50 hit.

  • LonnieC

    I’m not sure I understand “no” as even a possible answer. Under the circumstances, providing a full refund would not only be the simple, humane, decent thing to do, it would also make good business sense. Word of mouth means something. And after reading how unfeeling United was in this instance, others may consider another airline in the future. What ever happened to common decency?

  • jennj99738

    From what I read, The annual policy only has $1,000 trip cancellation protection per trip. That doesn’t cover much depending on the type of traveling you do. The medical coverage is much better than the cancellation protection, though. If I wasn’t concerned about cancellation, I would buy the annual insurance just for the med coverage including evac.

    ETA: I was looking at the policy meant for “leisure travelers.” There is also a business traveler “executive” policy which has a $5,000 trip cancellation provision with a $389 annual premium. I have to read the policy to see whether it will cover what it deems to be “leisure travel.”

  • Linda

    Nonrefundable means nonrefundable, why don’t people get that? You can buy cancellation insurance on a plane ticket for just a few bucks, I do it every time. Or you can buy trip insurance for your whole vacation from a third party. That’s what insurance is for, to protect against unforeseen illnesses and other contingencies. Why does everyone think an exception should be made for them?

  • Lala

    The airline offered them the same deal that you received, and then muddied the waters by offering either to a) waive the re-booking fee, or b) to refund entirely the husband’s portion of the trip. Not hers, just 1/2 of the trip.

    She replied that she’d like a refund of the entire trip (or credit.)

    Now the airline is waffling, and routing her through online forms instead of dealing with a person.