Why is Virgin dragging its feet on my ticket refund?

Question: I am having a problem with Virgin Atlantic Airways over a refund for two tickets I purchased last year. My husband and I planned to travel to England in August, but he had a serious stroke and his doctor advised him not to travel for at least six months.

When I called Virgin and advised it that we could not travel at that time, I was told the ticket would be good for one year and we could use it at any time that we were OK’d to fly. This seemed fair to me at the time since I fully expected my husband to recover and be able to travel.

Subsequently, my husband’s physician advised him his progress was such that air travel was not an option in the foreseeable future.

I asked Virgin for a refund and was told I would get one within the next four to eight weeks. It did not happen. I have called and received no help. I have written to the company, but nothing has been done.

I would appreciate any help or suggestions you might be able to give me. — LeEster Koranteng, Sanford, Fla.

Answer: If Virgin promised you a refund, you should get it. But did it?

When an airline says it will offer a refund on a nonrefundable ticket, it can mean you’ll get all of your money back. Or it can mean that it intends to refund taxes and fees, but not the fare. Or, in your case, it can mean it intends to do nothing at all.

So, unless you specifically had a promise to refund the entire ticket — and preferably in writing — then this may have been a misunderstanding between you and Virgin Atlantic.

Then again, maybe not. Airlines sometimes waive their nonrefundability rules for medical reasons, but they must be severe. For example, broken limbs or temporary illnesses typically don’t rise to that level, while chronic or terminal illnesses do. But I’ve seen airlines balk at refunding tickets to the relatives of passengers who have died.

Seriously.

Documenting Virgin Atlantic’s refund promise might have saved you a lot of hassle. You can do that by emailing the airline through its website and keeping the correspondence. Any assurances given to you by phone don’t really count for much. Why? Because there’s no evidence that a representative made those promises.

Still, you deserve a straight answer from the airline. If they’re going to keep your money, they should tell you instead of stringing you along.

I contacted Virgin Atlantic on your behalf, and it refunded your husband’s ticket. I wish him a speedy recovery.

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 our help forum.

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  • bodega3

    International tickets usually have a illness or death clause for a refund within the rules of the fare.  So her ticket refund got hung up and your contact just got it completed.  The first call she asked about reusing it, which is possible, the second call was for a refund which was probably allowable which is why they said they would do it.

    The poll really isn’t applicable to this case at all.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/4DMVW6EDML54CXFQMZHZCZ7WEY EmilyE

    Although it would be nice if oral messages would work, it’s much more reliable to get things in writing. The trouble with just working over the phone (unless it’s for things done in real time by the agent where the agent actually is processing your refund or whatever else as you talk to him/her) is that it’s really easy to say ‘but the agent said so’, even if they didn’t. Similarly, what if an agent you talk to says ‘the previous agent you talked to said it wasn’t possible’. You have no good way of confirming or denying this.

  • backprop

    The question is valid, but a more apropos one would be, “Would you rather have a promise in writing so that it is inviolable and not subject to the whims of memory, or would you rather rely on something you thought you heard someone say and would have a difficult time proving?”

    Although maybe if everyone had the former, this blog would be quite different. Greater than even odds that the OP’s story on any given day has the words “…the [agent] told me…”. And invariably, THAT is at the core of the complaint.

  • sirwired

    Why do you assume the ticket was refundable?  I doubt it was, as a refund would have been offered straight-off.

    If the ticket IS refundable, there is no “illness or death” clause; the ticket is just refundable, period.  If the ticket is non-refundable, there is usually part of the contract mentioning refund in case of death, but illness will always be outside the contract and require special intervention and compassion by the airline.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OEPJGQPIEB75YYDE5CJY6R3VFE Carver Clark Farrow II

    The premise behind the poll is false. Oral contracts are 100 percent enforceable unless they fall into certain statutory exceptions, the most common one is for the sale of real estate. The difficulty is not in the enforceability of the oral contract but rather proving either the existence of the oral contract, its terms, or both.

  • john4868

    I’d disagree with the statement “Any assurances given to you by phone don’t really count for much. Why? Because there’s no evidence that a representative made those promises.”

    The last 3 times I called the airline I normally fly I got the  “This call may be monitored or recorded” message before the agent picked up.

    Personally, I think what happens most often is that people on each end of the conversation hear what they want / expect to hear instead of what is actually said. Maybes turn into will happens in their mind. What they were thinking at the time gets mix in with what was said.

    The biggest issue when something is said on the phone without a recording is the he said / she said.

  • BillCCC

    I wanted to vote both ways. Oral contracts should be honoured and a customer should get a promise in writing. I believe that most large company call centres also record their calls. It shoudl be fairly easy to determine whether or not a promise was made.

  • Alan Gore

    Yes, because the travel industry definition of a ‘contract’ seems to be an agreement, written or oral, in which the customer is nailed to the wall but which the provider can honor if he feels like it. Please, kind sir, may I have some more gruel now?

  • john4868

    Simple question… How many of Chris’s articles in the last few months have consisted of stories along the lines of… I purchased a non-refundable {fil-in-the-blank} and {something happened}. Now I don’t want {fill-in-the-blank} and {mean company} won’t refund my non-refundable {fill-in-the-blank}. Can you help me {ie can you attempt to publically embarass the company that is doing nothing wrong and extort a refund from them by threatening to make them look bad in the national media}?

    Sounds to me like the customer is equally at fault when it comes to not honoring contracts.

  • ClareClare

    Ethically speaking, if airline employees are willing to tell you something over the phone, then they can’t come back later and claim that their conversation with you meant nothing.  I agree, of course, that it’s always better to get things in writing; but if the written word is really the only medium that the airlines intend to honor, then they should volunteer that information during their phone conversation with you!

    Otherwise, if an employee asserts X in an oral conversation, and the company later claims that oral conversations don’t count, that’s a form of deception.  Don’t state something to your customers if your statement has no meaning!  It’s not rocket science…

  • Bernard Rappoport

    Even when my friend had it in writing from the PR man at the old Northwest, he went back on his word and said he shouldn’t have made the promise…TFB…2 years later, that email, and the fact that he couldn’t have been bothered to show up in Small Claims Court, and my friend won.  Funny thing being that NW didn’t pay within the allotted time and my friend could have got a court order for seizure…which she planned to do 2 days before Christmas and hobble them up…but I told her to tell their General Counsel what lay ahead, and he got the check out within 24hrs.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    The fact that Virgin refunded it seems to be a big hint that it was refundable!  Sure, it could be just them being nice, but the OP’s comments about being promised the refund in 4 to 8 weeks also sound plausible. Odds are the refund just got lost in the shuffle.

  • Michael__K

    I got the  “This call may be monitored or recorded” message before the agent picked up.

    In most cases that is 100% for the businesses’ protection and not for yours.

    I’ve found that even when I get a notification that the call is being or may be recorded, if I inform the representative that I intend to record the call on my end, they usually tell me that they must refuse as a matter of policy and must terminate the call.  (This is in general, not specific to airlines).

  • Lindabator

    Since you never know who exactly you are speaking with, and some agents are not actually empowered to even offer a refund, getting it in writing is CRITICAL! 

  • Brian

    As agents of the company, if they promise it, the company must deliver.

  • Brian

     If the call may be recorded, then you should record it.  That makes sure you have records.  There’s no need to notify them, after all, they said it may be recorded. 

  • Joe Farrell

     We did the same thing in 1989 to TWA in Los Angeles but they refused to pay so we showed up at 530a and seized the 645a departure to St. Louis-  a nice 727.  The station manager was beside himself trying to get us to take a check and I told my partner [who was my client] not to accept the check because they would just stop payment on it.  The Station Manager swore on a stack of bibles he would not stop the payment on the check – but my partner was smarter than that and wanted his $5700 [it was $2600 claim that mushroomed with their refusals to pay] right then and there and they did not have the cash. 

    It was amusing to watch the guy grabbing $1000 from American and $1000 from Continental and $700 from United – he got to $5000 and ran out of friends.

    So we took a check for $700 – and guess what?  It bounced.  Yep.  TWA did not have $700 in its local bank account in Los Angeles.    The flight left at 730.  We got our last $700 3 months later.  Good thing we took the cash, huh?    And to get the $700 we needed to show the seizure order to the station manager and that we would be there shortly to seize the first flight that arrived before he got the money.   We all know what happened to TWA. . .

  • Joe Farrell

    if you can’t prove it, it did not happen.  If it is not in writing, it did not happen.  Airline agents on the subcontinent say all kinds of things that are lies, untruthful, unknowing and clueless – they make it up as they go along. 

    Was in Chicago trying to get on an earlier flight using an award ticket – and the agents had no clue has to how to make it happen – first answer was no – which is not the correct answer – so they put me on hold then they tell me I need to pay the difference in airfare – so say I ok – what is that?   Knowing there is no difference in fare – finally they transferred me to someone in the US who again gives the wrong answer so I point them to the contract of carriage regulations, which they don’t know how to look them up – at that point I figured I’d wasted enough time.

    the moral is that 95% of the back office employees have no idea what they are doing. 

    the real moral of the story is that my flight was oversold – I got my miles back for the flight, plus $400 for 2 tickets, plus first class on the next flight for volunteering.  Their intransigent regulations cost them money – even if its funny money its a seat they cannot sell. The sweetener was that I got in sooner than my original flight because as you know – once they screw up an on-time departure they find a million other reasons why its not leaving any time soon.   the bags were messed up, the loading was messed up and when they got to LAX 2 hours late they had no gate – and they sat for 30 min waiting for one.  How do I know?  A travel companion decided to take the original flight –

  • SooZeeeQ

    It appears that agreements made over the phone by carriers of any sort, are dust in the wind.
     
    LeEster Koranteng may have been a bit emotional, to say the least, when she spoke to Virgin Airways, and was not able to think clearly enough for something in writing – which she would not have been able to get at that time anyway – because it was a phone call.
     
    So is it suggested that we all make our pleas on-line, which can easily be opened and also ignored on the receiving end?
     
    Why did they just refund her husband’s ticket, as written?
     
    The conclusion to my mind, if at all possible, is that the best way is to go to the airport and do a face to face, which is highly inconvenient.
     
    Or just knock on Branson’s door on his cute little private island.

  • Joe Farrell

    The employee has to have the apparent authority to modify the terms of the contract – most call center employees do not – and why would you think that they have the ability to bind the company to exceptions to the contract?  You need to consider the circumstances before you can assume that they have the ability to offer what they are offering – while you may go ‘hey, they said it – I should be able ot rely on it’ remember one thing – Obama says its not a tax . . . 

  • IGoEverywhere

    99.9% of alll people never get the name and position of the person that they are talking to. DUMB! I will tell you exactly what you want to hear on the phone as a reservationist and then go on to the next call. I do indeed know that less than .0001% of any non-refundable tickets are refunded. The rule is clear.”Upon the death of the passenger, that ticket can be refunded with a copy of the obit”. The customer service department may allow waivers, but I just do not see it happening. Back to the promise. Let’s see the proof!

  • Joe Farrell

    Lets remember one thing – every single time I have ever timely subpeonaed a police vehicle camera video to prove an assertion of improper police procedure or improper police conduct, I have been told that the video is ‘misplaced or unavailable.’  Every time. 

    So why would you think a call center recording with an airline would be available when you ask for it?  Every single call is recorded.  Every single one.  They want proof to protect themselves – but when the recording reveals evidence that their employees acted improperly or outside the scope it will have been ‘inadvertantly over-recorded or destroyed’ months before there was ever a dispute. . . .

    Look – non-refundable means non-refundable.  It does not mean non-refundable unless your dog pees on your carpet, chews up your passport or you or some distant or not-so-distant family member has a stroke.   Even if they die. 

    Now, like Spirit did with the veteran who got sick and was unable to fly – you might HAVE to make an exception to your rules for public relations reasons – but that still does not mean that the general rule is that its non-refundable.  You want a refund – buy the upgradeable coach to first class ticket – I’ve done it when my plans might change.

  • IGoEverywhere

    BTW, the taxes and government fees on an international ticket are significant, sometimes 50%, so I would be demanding those back. If bought through a travel agent, it would be almost instantaneous to find out the amount.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OEPJGQPIEB75YYDE5CJY6R3VFE Carver Clark Farrow II

    The articles that Chris publishes are hardly a representative sample.  Its not like the travel provider ever complains to Chris.

  • bodega3

    Most international APEX fares have an illness or death clause in the rules.

    Here is the rule for illness from the lowest APEX fare on VS from SFO to LHR in Sept. Very typical clause:
    .PENALTIES
    CHANGES

    ANY TIME
    CHARGE USD 275.00. ‡
    MD«
    NOTE – TEXT BELOW NOT VALIDATED FOR AUTOPRICING. ‡
    BEFORE DEPARTURE OF THE OUTBOUND JOURNEY FOR
    CHANGES MADE PRIOR TO THE DEPARTURE OF THE
    SCHEDULED FLIGHT – REPRICE USING CURRENT FARES.
    AFTER DEPARTURE OF THE OUTBOUND JOURNEY FOR
    CHANGES MADE PRIOR TO THE DEPARTURE OF THE
    SCHEDULED FLIGHT – REPRICE USING FARES IN EFFECT
    AT TIME OF ORIGINAL TICKET ISSUE.
    NO SHOW – FOR CHANGES MADE AFTER THE ORIGINAL
    SCHEDULED FLIGHT CHARGE USD375 AND REPRICE USING
    CURRENT OR HISTORICAL FARES AS ABOVE.
    INFANTS – NO PENALTY – REPRICE FARE AS ABOVE.
    CHILDREN – NO DISCOUNTS – APPLY AS PER ADULT.
    WAIVER – FOR DEATH/ILLNESS OF PAX OR IMMEDIATE
    FAMILY MEMBER AS EVIDENCED BY A DEATH/HOSPITAL
    CERTIFICATE – KEEP THE ORIGINAL FARE AND REBOOK
    AS REQUIRED.
    UPGRADES – PRIOR TO DEPARTURE OF THE ORIGINAL
    SCHEDULED FLIGHT – MAY BE UPGRADED TO A HIGHER ‡
    MD«
    CABIN WITHOUT PENALTY. REPRICE USING CURRENT OR ‡
    HISTORICAL FARES AS ABOVE.
    RESULTING FARE MUST BE EQUAL OR HIGHER THAN
    ORIGINAL FARE.
    RESIDUAL AMOUNTS – NO REFUND WILL BE GIVEN
    IF REPRICING RESULTS IN A LOWER FARE.
    MULTIPLE CHARGES – APPLY THE HIGHEST CHARGE OF ALL
    FARE COMPONENTS WITHIN A PRICING UNIT REGARDLESS
    OF WHETHER THAT FARE COMPONENT HAS BEEN CHANGED.

    CANCELLATIONS

    ANY TIME
    TICKET IS NON-REFUNDABLE.
    NOTE – TEXT BELOW NOT VALIDATED FOR AUTOPRICING.
    WAIVED FOR DEATH OF PASSENGER OR IMMEDIATE FAMILY
    MEMBER AS EVIDENCED BY A DEATH CERTIFICATE

  • john4868

    Would you like to bet that as soon as I say “your representative said x,y,z on the phone call on x June” that they aren’t going to the tape? If they said it, odds are you are going to be in a better bargining position but as I said in my original note… that’s a big if.

    Also, regardless of their original purpose, phone recordings are business records and discoverable if you have to go the legal route. (Been there before)

  • Michael__K

    Good luck with that.  Sometimes no one who is empowered to speak to you is empowered to put anything in writing.

  • Adam_The_Man

    Yet another scam!  All tickets should be 100% refundable no matter what, this is such a joke, and airlines need to change their rules.

  • BillCCC

    I am merely stating my opinion. Most people believe what they are told. Whether or not an employee can or cannot bind a company to follow a course of action would be something for a court to determine. Whatever the president has to say has no bearing on this topic. 

  • Michael__K

    What I’ve found works pretty well is to:

    1) Get a name and/or as much additional info as possible from the person making the promise (e.g. agent ID, call center location, extension)

    2) If the person isn’t empowered to send emails, ask them to make a notation in their system about what they are promising.  Ask them to read back the notation verbatim (and write it down for my own records).  Get as much information as possible on where the notation can be found and how to reference it in the future when speaking to another agent.

    3) Depending on my comfort level and the importance of the issue, I may call back and verify that another agent can see and confirm the notation.  It’s also good to ask if the notation will automatically disappear at some point (and if so when).

    I’ve had generally good results with this approach, but I hate the process and the fact that one needs to go to such lengths.

  • bodega3

    They use to all be refundable but people took advantage of that benefit.  They started with a $25 penalty and have had to increase it over the years.  I don’t blame them for charging and I don’t like having to pay it, so it keeps me from making changes or cancelling just willy nilly which is what they want.

  • john4868

    You have the option to purchase 100% refundable tickets. I assume you don’t because of the expense in doing so. What makes you think that changing the rules changes that.

    Personally I’ll keep my non-refundable (but insured with Trip Insurance), cheap ticket.

    You can keep your incredibly expensive tickets

  • jet2x2

    I agree.  I think the more appropriate answers are “Yes, they should stand by what their employees say on the phone” or “No, customers should not expect anything promised by a business unless it’s in writing.”  

  • jet2x2

    Employees are not agents of a company.  They are employees and the employer can limit their authority.  If you owned a business with thousands of people on the phone, would you stand by everything they said even if it was wrong?  If the answer is yes I expect you would go out of business quickly.

  • jet2x2

    I voted no.  It doesn’t matter who says what to you on the phone, if they are lying, if they are cheating, if they are trying to part you from your money or keep your money.  If you can’t prove it in court, you are out of luck.  In this case, I would argue that the ticket was the contract and it sets out the terms for a refund.  That trumps any “oral agreement” made by an airline employee.  And unlike some of the other “contractual” language airlines use to deny things after you bought the ticket, customers can determine the terms in this case before they make the purchase so I think it’s a bit fairer than the usual situation we read about here.

  • Michael__K

    Unless the dispute involves a large enough amount, the legal route will cost more than what can be recovered.

    Also the recording needs to still exist. By the time you allow 8 weeks for a refund, it may not.

  • Joe Farrell

     what the President says has a direct bearing on the point you were making – oral contracts should be honored means that what hte President tells us in his role as President should be binding on him, right?  So, its not a tax, its a penalty – and Roberts was wrong.  Someone is wrong here – it cannot be both.  To bring it 180 degrees full  circle – it cannot both be refundable and non-refundable – so which is it?

  • bodega3

    Yes it can be both and is.  You can also apply a nonrefundable ticket to a refundable ticket but the nonrefundable portion remains so if you cancel.  Oh what a tangled web they weave but we know how to get through it!

  • SooZeeeQ

    Getting the name and an employee ID number is a good start, but it still can all backfire since we have no idea if the agent is actually putting anything in the record and so if you call back as soon as you hang up, it may or may not be there, and who is to say that a supervisor is alerted to this and removed?

    Sorry, I just am unable to trust what I cannot see or get in writing after all of the articles Chris has posted.

  • Daisiemae

    That disappearing video trick is the same one that TSA pulls every time one of their screeners abuses passengers, violates TSA policy, or breaks the law.

  • TonyA_says

    This is EXACTLY the issue !
    Most COCs explicit state the CSRs and employees cannot change the terms of the contract.

  • TonyA_says

     It is non-refundable unless either the pax or a family member dies, then it becomes refundable.

  • TonyA_says

    The truth – nobody give a sh*t anymore, Good luck since both sides – the supplier and the customer – cannot be trusted.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OEPJGQPIEB75YYDE5CJY6R3VFE Carver Clark Farrow II

     All you have to do is send a notice to the appropriate person that there is a dispute and that the record in question must not be destroyed.  That can be done immediately.

  • Joe Farrell

    Im sure that works all the time Carver. You know that is just not how the system works.

  • jim6555

    If I call a cell phone carrier, speak to one of their agents and order a new phone that requires a two year service contact, that transaction is considered binding even though my signature never appears on a single piece of paper. If during the two year term, I move my service to another carrier, I am liable for a penalty charge since I have broken the oral contract. The original carrier has made a recording of our oral agreement which is enforceable in court should I refuse to pay the penalty. 

    Airlines should be required to keep a recording of any conversation between a passenger and an agent that involve ticket refunds or changes. Any promises made by the agent should be considered binding on the carrier. The conversations then should be made available to clarify what was said during the call. The customer would have the obligation of noting the date and time of the call along with the name or ID number of the agent to assist the airline in locating the call.

  • http://www.facebook.com/judyserie.nagy Judy Serie Nagy

    When this story was first published, I had been waiting for refunds on 2 cancelled tix for several months, one finally arrived (less the cancellation fee) and the other many months later. I was quite worried that the information the agent gave me on the phone wasn’t valid. At the time of cancellation, I wasn’t sure when we could rebook, so I chose a refund. I was able to rebook a month or two later, so Virgin had ALOT of my money! Virgin Atlantic is still my airline of choice from San FRancisco to Europe and I am very glad the two cancelled tix got handled properly, even tho I’m clueless as to why it would take nearly six months.