Hey, how about a refund for that airline fee?

Patpichaya/Shutterstock
Patpichaya/Shutterstock
Here’s a question that’s been on my mind — and maybe yours, too — since the revelation that airlines collected a
record $27 billion in fees last year
, a staggering 19.6 percent increase from 2011: Do they ever offer to refund those extra charges?

They’re required to under certain conditions. For example, if you paid $25 for your first checked bag, and the airline lost your luggage, the government now mandates that the airline refund the fee.

How generous of the airlines.

But what about other circumstances? Like, say, the one affecting Emanuel Feldman’s flight from Tel Aviv to Atlanta last December?

“After paying for this reservation, I realized I needed to stop in Baltimore for several hours,” he remembers. So he changed his reservation to allow a brief stopover in Baltimore, paying US Airways an extra $200 for the privilege.

But it wasn’t meant to be. His flight from Philadelphia to Baltimore was canceled, and US Airways rebooked him on a nonstop flight to his final destination.

Feldman wondered if he could get his $200 back. After all, he never stopped in Baltimore. Shouldn’t US Airways refund the fee?

“I wrote to the US Airways office in Phoenix in January and was told they are working on it,” he told me. “Having heard nothing by February, I wrote them again. No reply. I wrote again in April and again in May, this time to the CEO. Still no reply.”

The refund is due

To me, this case looked like a slam dunk. Feldman paid for something he didn’t get. It didn’t matter what the fare rules on his ticket said, and it didn’t matter what fine print the airline inserted in its contract.

I asked him to send me the written correspondence with the airline. He did, and it showed the letters from Feldman were unfailingly polite, but were met with form responses by US Airways. The airline promised him a refund as early as December, but six months later — nothing!

Based on what I saw, I thought a prompt refund was due. Even though I had a few questions about his reservations — did he cancel the ticket and rebook, or simply pay a change fee and any fare differential? — I couldn’t envision a scenario under which US Airways could keep Feldman’s money.

This case also raised two larger questions: First, under what circumstances should fees be refundable to air travelers? And second, are airlines making it too difficult to get these deserved refunds?

A long, long wait

I contacted US Airways shortly after reviewing Feldman’s letters. Seeing its promise of a refund was enough. Even if for some reason he didn’t deserve to get his money back, US Airways had promised him in writing that it would return the $200. And it hadn’t.

When it comes to refunds, the government isn’t exactly our friend. Although it requires an airline to process a refund within seven business days, it allows for up to two credit card billing cycles to receive the money. That could take up to three months.

Feldman had been more than patient.

A few days after I reached out to US Airways in mid-June, he contacted me. He’d just received his credit card statement from May, which showed that the airline had processed his refund at last. Apparently, the money had been there all along (but alas, six months late).

“Please note your own power,” he added. “The mere thought of getting a note from you induced them, even one month earlier, to do the right thing.”

Ah, if only.

As much as this is a story about the refundability of fees, it also illustrates something we’ve known for a long time. Airlines don’t like to return your money, even when they’re required to by law.

A six-month wait for a refund, by the way, isn’t a record. Here’s a refund that took one year. And here’s one that took nearly two years.

This also answers my second question. Are airlines making it too difficult to get these deserved refunds?

You tell me.

Under which circumstances should fees be refundable to air travelers? To that question, we still don’t have a clear answer. If you said, “When the service isn’t provided,” you’re wrong. For years, airlines pocketed your luggage fee even when they lost your bags, until the government stepped in. Try getting a refund on a reservation fee after a flight attendant asks you to move seats to accommodate a family, or a ticket change fee after your flight’s delayed, and you’ll find out what Feldman already knows: airlines would really prefer to keep all that tasty ancillary revenue.

The fix? We need to incentivize airlines to repay us quickly by tightening refund rules and adding harsh penalties for pocketing our money. And we need to figure out a way to dis-incentivize them from charging these often outrageous fees and then keeping them.

Perhaps an equally ridiculous new “fee” tax would do the trick?

Should the government require airlines to refund fees faster?

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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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  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Agreed

    In fact, guaranteed overnight services will refund the entire cost if the packages are delivered late

  • Carol

    I deal with all major carriers that I am allowed to ticket in the US. The only exceptions are Southwest and Jetblue as they are not in my system. I have clients book those carriers directly on their websites as I cannot offer anything different than they can get booking it themselves.

  • EdB

    I had FedEx refund the entire shipping cost just because they failed to get a signature. I had sent a package with signature required and they just left it at the door. I went by to ask what happened and they were all apologetic about it and just refunded the cost even though I told them they didn’t have too. Just wanted to find out why they didn’t get the signature.

  • TonyA_says

    There’s a very easy answer to this? Did his e-ticket have a coupon for PHL-BWI as a stopover? If none, then end of story. In fact, there should not even been a story if there was no stopover on his itinerary.

    From the looks of it, BWI was not a stopover.

  • jpp42

    Of course I read the article, I understand the airline cancelled the flight. My question is why did he *accept* this at the time? If he had business in Baltimore and he was ticketed to fly there, why didn’t he object? Did the business need go away (it can happen)? My question is, why didn’t he ask to be re-booked back on an itinerary with a Baltimore stopover so he could complete the business?

    As other replies have pointed out it’s probably that the stop in Baltimore wasn’t booked as a stopover, but rather as a connection, which doesn’t obligate the airline to send him there.

  • jpp42

    That wasn’t my question, sorry for being unclear. My question is why didn’t he ask to be re-booked back on an itinerary with a Baltimore stopover so he could complete the business?

  • Aemilia

    I spent an hour on the phone trying to get a refund for a $79 “seat upgrade” fee that was moot when a flight attendant asked me to change seats to accommodate a mother separated from her crying child, who was seated several rows away. I was offered a $100 travel voucher, which I refused. After 40 minutes on hold, waiting for the customer service rep’s supervisor to respond, I finally secured the refund. Flight attendants should be empowered to immediately refund seat upgrade fees if they ask you to move out of a premium seat into a cramped middle seat (and on a red-eye from Honolulu, no less!).

  • LFH0

    True if there were no separate coupon. But what if there were a separate coupon? Traditional airline tickets were fairly uniform in appearance and format, and it was elementary to look and see if there was an “X” or “O” for each coupon. From my observations (which admittedly are not that thorough), online tickets seem to take many different forms, and I’m not sure if that distinction continues to be readily observed by purchasing passengers.

    I think you’re right about Baltimore probably not being a stopover. The fact that the additional amount paid by the passenger, $200, is the same amount as the change fee, leads me to conclude that the passenger did purchase a stopover. That is, the additional $200 was not additional “fare,” and he did not purchase the “privilege” of stopping over in Baltimore. He simply paid a fee for the privilege of changing a reservation itinerary to one which included Baltimore. But the carrier was not obligated to deliver him to Baltimore, and the carrier could probably still change his itinerary without compensation if it delivered him to the next point of stopover earlier than originally scheduled.

  • Mel65

    I did email Delta but I got a form “we’ve received and someone will contact” response only so far. It’s only $60 so it isn’t the money. It’s… ok, well it’s MY DAUGHTER. For me I’d shrug it off after grousing a bit….I guess when it comes to my kids I get a little more testy :)

  • Joe

    I fell for American’s “Main Cabin Extraa” scam. I bought the tickets, then after the fact selected seats, only to find that the only remaining ones were “premium” seats. I paid an insane $70+ for the privilege of sitting in the only seats available and in the end was able to switch to a regular non-premium seat. I was told the refund for the $70+ seat would be automatic. It took a written letter to customer service to resolve the issue, but they are clearly crossing the line by not disclosing the fact that only “premium” seats are available, and not automatically processing refunds when they’re due.