When to bend a rule — and when to break it

Kesu/Shutterstock
Kesu/Shutterstock

Rules are meant to be broken, right? Well, you might be forgiven for thinking so if you’re a regular reader of my work.

As a consumer advocate, I routinely help people bend rules when circumstances warrant it. Of course, that brings out the usual chorus of rule-lovers, trolls and haters, who accuse me of threatening the foundations of Western civilization by convincing a company to waive its often ridiculous policies.

But rules are important. Just ask Congress, which is on the verge of shutting down half of the U.S. government because of disagreements over the budget and healthcare reform. As I write this, I’m in Washington sitting next to a government executive who is worried sick that her office will be shuttered tomorrow. It probably will be.

The law-and-order folks have a valid point, once you get past their often angry personal attacks. Some rules are not meant to be broken.

For example, here’s a request I received from Mary Anne Fontaine on behalf of a friend who flies once a year and had found an inexpensive ticket on Allegiant Air.

“Since she purchased the ticket, that airline has had three emergency incidents that I feel should be reason enough for her to be able to cancel her ticket with a refund,” she says. “How can she go about doing this?”

The incidents Fontaine is referring to are serious, but didn’t involve any fatalities. They include an emergency landing in Georgia and an incident in Hawaii and a bird strike in Florida.

Allegiant may be in love with fees (that’s another story) and it may not operate the most customer-friendly airline (another story, too) but even with this string of unfortunate incidents, I can’t find it in me to call the airline unsafe, or to even suggest Fontaine’s friend might have a reason to worry.

When I get a case like this, my first instinct isn’t to jump into action. But before I do, I look at the facts and I apply the skeptical filter my journalism instructors helped me develop years ago. And that filter showed me I was probably looking at someone who wanted to get around Allegiant’s nonrefundability rule, and might be using the news to justify it.

Can you tell which way I’m leaning on this case? Keep reading and I’ll tell you how I responded.

Yes, rules are meant to be broken

Once you understand the reasons behind some of the airline ticket restrictions, you’ll quickly conclude that rules are meant to be broken, if not by passengers then by the airlines themselves.

The “no refunds” policy is meant to protect a carrier’s revenues — which is to say, if you cancel a ticket, and the airline can’t resell it, then the company shouldn’t have to eat the loss. Most passengers understand that and respect it. (Actually, Allegiant used to be a little more flexible, allowing a name change for a $50 fee. That policy ends Oct. 30. Oh well.)

But the “no refunds” rule doesn’t make sense on another level. If an airline manages to resell the empty seat, it still gets to keep your money. That bothers some travelers who don’t mind covering the lost opportunity for an airline but do mind when the carrier double-dips.

The other inconsistency? Airlines are allowed to cancel flights for any reason, and the penalties are negligible. Even in Europe, which has tougher consumer protection laws for bumped airline passengers, companies sometimes skirt the rule by offering a creative definition of “extraordinary circumstances,” which essentially lets them cancel flights without offering any meaningful compensation.

So when someone asks me to help them get around the “no refunds” rule, I don’t have a problem hearing their case. After all, in addition to writing the rules so that they can get away with almost any flight cancellation, airlines routinely waive their own rules for their best customers, which include elite-level frequent fliers, employees traveling on passes and active-duty military. What’s one more?

It’s all about the lesson

I’m often asked — maybe harassed is a better word — why I continue to hear cases like Fontaine’s and devote coverage to it. I see each column or post as a learning opportunity for everyone: the reader, the company and me. Often, you’ll find a spirited discussion in the comments section, in which the rules-are-rules people excoriate me for helping someone game the system and the pro-consumer readers congratulate me for it.

Here’s how I see it: If you come away with a better sense of how to navigate your way around the needlessly complex rules put in place by companies such as airlines, then my work is done. Dissecting Allegiant’s nonrefundability rules does exactly that, and at the end of the debate, we’re all better consumers and smarter travelers.

I didn’t get involved in Fontaine’s case. In fact, I haven’t responded to her until now, and I hope she doesn’t mind.

I don’t think I can convince Allegiant to refund her friend’s ticket because of a bird strike and a few emergency landings. Planes would have to fall out of the sky before an airline begins to refund nonrefundable tickets en masse. Unless, of course, it feels like it.

I’m already bracing for the comments from the pro-consumer readers who think I’m slacking off, followed by the angry attacks from airline apologists who feel I have no business asking anyone for a refund, ever.

Enjoy the debate.

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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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