Our host died and Dad’s not well — how about a refund?

Life happens, they say. But it really happened to Dee Nemeth and her husband, Don.

They had nonrefundable tickets from Chicago to Huntsville, Ala., on United Airlines, to visit a family friend, last year. But they never made it.

“The day before our departure, our friend’s daughter called to tell us her father had unexpectedly been taken to the hospital,” she says. “Obviously, we needed to postpone our trip which we did, initially. But sadly, our host died at 1 a.m. on the day we were to leave.”

The Nemeths accepted United Airlines’ terms, which are the industry standard: A $150 change fee plus any fare differential, to be used within a year of the initial booking date. United even agreed to waive the change fee because of the medical emergency.

But then, life happened again.

Within the year, my dad became more frail (having broken his hip and suffering from black-out episodes) and his doctor suggested that he shouldn’t travel.

When my husband and I re-booked our flights in January of this year, we asked that my father’s ticket cost be applied to ours, but the agent told us that was not possible.

Nemeth was left with the impression that because of her father’s medical condition, he might get a full refund. And that’s where she and United Airlines couldn’t come to an agreement.

We were told that $300 would be credited back to our card, and that it would take two billing cycles. We waited for three billing cycles, but nothing.

We called again and were told we should re-submit the request with all supporting documentation, which we did. We waited again, but nothing. So we called again, and were told we had to re-submit everything again. Which we did.

Then came United’s final answer, a tone-deaf form letter denying everything:

We regret the circumstances described in your letter. Our thoughts are with you and your family at this difficult time.

We understand that a loss of a loved one one is a time of stress, in which hastily planned travel is often a necessity.

United Airlines offers a compassion fare in the event of the death of an immediate family member. Since your request is not for an eligible family member, we are unable to honor your request.

I am sorry that we cannot do more for you during this difficult time.

I suggested Nemeth appeal to someone higher up at United, but United didn’t bother to respond.

I’m moving this into the “case dismissed” file, but I’m not happy about it. United Airlines has several inquiries from me that are have as much merit as Nemeth’s, and it hasn’t bothered responding to them. I’m left with the impression that it simply doesn’t care.

There’s a valuable lesson for all of us in this case. First, to be clear, United didn’t have to refund anything. Her tickets were nonrefundable.

But if it was going to make an exception, Nemeth should have gotten the promise in writing — not by phone. Talk is cheap, as they say.

I can understand the airline industry’s reasons for having these strict nonrefundability rules, but if it’s going to bend them, then it should at least stick to its promises. But absent any documentation that an airline would make an exception to its rules, there’s very little anyone can do.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Mary Ramsey

    It’s unfortunate but airlines have a “closed hearts” policy. It has been said on this site before- no refunds or cheap fares for death, no refunds or cheap fares for sickness, because to the airlines we are all liars.

    Take the trip anyway or write it off as a loss. I fly allot and I ALWAYS go in to the purchese with the mid set of “I will not be able to change or cancel this ticket.”

    And i do have experience; I planned a trip to Ireland, then my doctor told me i would have to stop taking my thyroid medication in preperation for radiation and that i would “feel off”, so i should “cancel my trip”. Heck no. I was not going to be weak, tired, and on the phone begging for a refund. I went anyway.

  • y_p_w

    I remember when I ate a couple of fares when my wife was pregnant and was too scared to fly (too many people giving too much advice about this and that which might increase the chance of a miscarriage). We cancelled and had a credit (with a $40 change fee each if we rebooked) but with a kid on the way it just didn’t seem like the right time to use the airfare. After a year I figured that we should just eat it.

    I think it gets to a point where the airlines have found out that people lie.  However, I could never figure out why credits aren’t transferrable.  It frankly doesn’t make sense to me.  If I get an exchange credit from a retail purchase made past a certain timeframe, I can at least use the credit to buy something to give to someone else, even if I personally have to sign a credit voucher in my name.  I can purchase airfare for someone else using my account and using my credit card in my name.

    It just seems like the airlines do it just because they can.

  • lorcha

    I think about the only thing that United Airlines does well is break guitars. 

  • Daves

    “However, I could never figure out why credits aren’t transferrable. It frankly doesn’t make sense to me.”

    Just to give you an idea:


    Whether something makes sense or not probably depends what side of the fence one is in.

    One thing I learned in my previous travel agent life is that if one makes a promise, it needs to be documented for others to see. I know that’s silly for some, but that’s one way how others in an organization (especially if the person handling it assigns that to someone else) can confirm what’s committed or so. (aside from listening to a recording, if any…)

    Of course, a risk there is someone might forget to document that promise or – worse – say one thing but mean another.

  •  If i had someone near me who was ill I would forget about this and simply move on. The time, effort, negative energy will soon drag you and the cost will be greater.

  • Yep, definitely agree. The time and effort the OP has spent on this has likely been more than what the (dad’s) ticket was worth. I think United did enough in waiving the change fee. They should have used up the credit ASAP instead of waiting around. The longer you wait, the more things can happen. But it sounds like it’s just the dad’s portion that they’re worried about. But if we expect airlines to refund because of illness, that’s never going to happen. That’s what insurance is for…

    I’m interested in the other question, though. What’s to stop the airlines from issuing a transferable travel voucher in cases like this? Is it the logistics, making it harder to keep track of it if it isn’t in the system under a specific person’s name? The possibility of fraud? Are they afraid ppl would sell the credit to someone else (ie. they’d rather the possibility of the credit going unused by one person as opposed to it for sure being used by someone else?) I don’t see any advantage to the airlines of changing the rule. And if the original ticket is non-transferable, would it be logical to expect the resulting credit to be? Just asking…

  • Flyertalk has a good mantra for situations like this.  If you don’t like the first answer, hang up, call again.  Repeat until you get the desired result.

  • finance_tony

    I guess I’m the cold-hearted one here.  The first thing that comes to mind in sad situations like this is: who should bear the cost of bad news?  In this case, no answer is good, but one makes less sense than the other.  The person who is visiting the deceased/gets sick/has second thoughts loses his non-refundable ticket.  Is that crummy?  Yes.  But it makes much less sense to assume or pressure the airline to bear that cost. 

    It’s hard enough to get airlines to honor their own ticketing (thinking over to involuntary downgrades again) or other egregious violations of common sense.  It seems like a losing battle to also visit our day-to-day problems on the airlines expecting them to absorb the costs as well.

  • sirwired

    I don’t necessarily blame the airline for their policy, but I agree that if they agree over the phone to bend the policy to issue a credit or refund for unusual circumstances, they should actually do so.

  • sirwired

     Most airlines WILL issue a refund if you die before your trip; I think even Spirit will do this.  (Although most will NOT do anything for illness.)

  • finance_tony

    I take any claim that starts with “We were told….” with a grain of salt.  In all the years of reading these cases, I’m curious how many people actually say “On 12:15am Central Time, agent Rebecca M., badge #77443, said that she would put $400 on our credit card.”  Granted Chris might get some of these and not write out the details.  But, vague and passive-voice “we were told” or “we were led to believe” statements are, effectively, useless.

  • emanon256

    I am pleasantly surprised that United waived the $150 change fee, that’s very good of them. And I feel for the OP.  That is quite a series of unfortunate events.  However, I don’t think United should refund the fathers ticket.  They bought a non-refundable ticket, and that’s simply what it is, why would they expect a refund. United already bent the rules and let both of them re-book without the $150 change fee, that’s already a $300 credit from United, that they were not required to give. Now they want more?  I buy non-refundable tickets because they are cheaper, but they are just that, non-refundable.  I think it’s wrong of the OP to expect a refund. Would they join a gym, not use it, and expect a refund?  Would they buy a car, not drive it, and expect a refund?  That’s what happens with a non-refundable ticket.
    While I think the OP already got more than they were entitled to, I am a bit disturbed by United’s response.  I think whoever wrote that e-mail didn’t even read the request, that should be addressed by the high ups at United.  They weren’t asking for a compassion fare.  That is clearly unacceptable.  They should at least read their customers e-mails.  I sadly think this is the influence of Jeff Sizmek on the company, he brought Continental downhill in customer service and is now bring United downhill too.  I am upset that they won’t respond to Chris or the OP, even if it’s to explain that a non-refundable ticket is just that.

  • emanon256

    But how would you ever know?  Okay, that was just me being silly.
    On a serious note, my father has a stroke in November. Even with power of attorney, and a letter stating he is mentally incapacitated, I have not been able to get his credit card closed, or the various auto-bill companies (phone, cable, utilities, internet, random other stuff) to stop billing it.  Let alone get anyone to give a refund.  He has even incurred over $1,000 in overdraft fees because a lot of the auto-bill charges go to his debit card.  I seriously doubt an airline would be any better.

  • Kathleen Proud Keyte

    life happens…people get sick and die….not everyone owes you a refund because of it. Move on.

  • emanon256

    That’s a good question.  I had a ticket from JFK-IAD on United for the weekend once to visit some family for the weekend a few years back.  It was $140 and change.  The flight got canceled due to air traffic and they put me on the next one.  That got canceled too.  Eventually too many were canceled and they could not re-book me until after I was already supposed to return.  I took the train instead which sadly was close to $400.  I wrote a letter to United stating that since they could not get me to IAD until after I was already supposed to return, I would like them to refund the ticket.  They responded stating that the ticket no longer has any value since the entire value is less than the $150 change fee.  However, as a gesture of good will, they will give me a $200 voucher for future travel, good for 1 year from that day, not the original purchase day, and that the voucher was transferable.
    While I would have preferred my money back, I thought it was nice that they gave me a voucher for more than I was out, extended the date, and allowed me to use it for anyone.  It made for a very good deal flying my mom out to NY later that year.

  • sdir

     I do agree with you, but I also feel that if the airline promised a refund, they absolutely should make good on it. The lengthy runaround and then finally refusing to honor their own promise was pretty pathetic.  And since when does United offer Compassion Fares?  My father recently passed and I certainly wasn’t offered a “compassionate” price.

  • finance_tony

    See above; I doubt there was any “promise”. 

  • Alan Gore

    Ultimately, this situation is our own fault: when legacy airlines go bankrupt, we keep bailing them out, and we keep insulating them from foreign competition with cabotage laws. Would situations like the one described be happening today if American skies were being fought over in open competition among Southwest, Singapore and Emirates?

  • Elmo Clarity

    Since they were not able to provide transportation based on the original dates/time, I think you were owed a full refund, not funny money.  

  • Elmo Clarity

    Sadly, if it is not in writing, it is not a promise.  When you buy a non-refundable ticket, you are making an agreement with the airline.  You accept the lower fare in exchange for assuming the risks that you might not be able to use it.  If you want the airline to assume the risk, you buy a refundable ticket.  It’s as simple as that.

  • BillCCC

    United should honor any promises that they made to the traveller. Always get it in writing! They did waive the change fee for the first change. The constant requests for documentation makes me think they was a large communication problem. Were they sending the correct documentation to the correct address? To be fair to the company they should not have to lose money due to my personal problems. 

  • TonyA_says

    While I will certainly feel bad if I were in their shoes, I can understand why the airlines have different fare levels depending on when you [in advance] purchase the tickets and depending on refund-ability and change-ability restrictions.

    For example a Chicago ORD to Hunstville HSV base (before tax) fare on United could be as high as $1893.96 roundtrip on Y  Economy Unrestricted booking class. On the other hand it can be as cheap as $249.30 (before tax) on W Economy Non-Refundable booking class ticketed at least 21 days prior to departure.

    So it is easy to see why in exchange for MORE RESTRICTIONS, one is paying a lot less. This is the deal the OP made with the airline.

    However, the NON-REFUNDABILITY of Gov’t Taxes and Fees really bothers me. Since the airlines simply collect and remit these and they are tantamount to USE taxes and fees; what legal grounds do the airlines or the government have in keeping them if the passenger never gets to fly and use the tickets. If I return an item to a store, I also get my sales tax back. Maybe a lawyer can explain this.

  • Harry Baxter

    One more case where people need to consider travel insurance. The prevailing wisdom is that you should insure your trip if the loss really would hurt. In this case, I wouldn’t have purchased insurance, but I would have accepted the fact that my money was gone in the event that uncontrollable circumstances caused me to lose it. It wasn’t the airline’s fault that they had to cancel.

  • Steve_in_WI

    As soon as a United representative said that they would be issued a $300 refund, United owed them that refund. Period. (If they hadn’t made that offer, I’d have no problem with them sticking to their policy that the ticket was nonrefundable).

  • TonyA_says

    If the government is really thinking for the people, they would allow foreign airlines to operate US to US routes for as long as the crew is All American (paid American wages), and the airline is certified by the FAA. More competition is always good for consumers. I cannot find any reason why the government should protect US airlines when they have such a bad reputation.

  • MarkKelling

    Not a lawyer, but here are my thoughts.

    Since you have not returned anything and no refund was issued for the flight, you don’t get the taxes back.  Same as if I buy something and pay sales tax on it.  If I choose to never use the item and if I don’t return it for a refund, I don’t get any taxes paid refunded. 
    If you buy a refundable air ticket and don’t fly and get the refund, you get all of the taxes (and usually the fees except for prepaid baggage) refunded as well.

  • MarkKelling

    You buy a non-refundable non-transferable ticket because it costs a lot less than a fully refundable one.  When you do that, you assume the risks of losing the money spent on the ticket if you don’t use it.  To offset the risk, you can buy insurance.  But at some point the cost of insurance outweighs the benefit and losing what you paid for the ticket becomes acceptable.  

    In this case the airline may have promised a refund, but since there is no documentation of that, the airline is not going to pay.  Short of taking this to small claims court and having the risk of the case being immediately thrown out because the ticket was non-refundable, there is nothing that can be done to prod the airline into doing something nice.  At least it was only 1 of the 3 tickets that was lost and not having to pay the change fee is a major win.

  • Charlie Funk

    Non-refundable tickets, change fees, and the like are a MAJOR income stream for airlines.  Computer algorithms can predict with a fair degree of accuracy how many cancellations will occur on a given flight on a given day.  Sometimes the prediction is wrong, the airlines ask for volunteers to move to another flight of someone gets bumped.

    Either way, airlines plan on change fee income the same way they depend on ticket sales.  It’s a tawdry business when compared to the airline industry of thirty years ago, but these fees and penalties for services never delivered are a part of what keeps apparent airline tickets low.  It would be interesting to know how much the average ticket price would go up if non-refundable fares were abolished.  My guess is that it would substantial.

    All that said, if UA promised something, they should deliver.  It is incumbent on the consumer in this case to document such promises by keeping notes, date and time stamping them, getting the name and agent sine of the airline person to whom they spoke and using that information if the need arises.

  • 219kimrod

     Who is the credit card company that refused to honor a power of attorney?  This sort of company should be named and shamed AND their refusal is likely illegal.

  • TonyA_says

    Mark, but the tickets are no good anymore, or no longer valid after one year of issue. So, they still have no basis to keep taxes for UNUSABLE tickets.

  • finance_tony

    And who’s to say a rep did say that?  There is no proof.  I read a hearsay statement and a “we were led to believe…” statement which carries no weight whatsoever.

    And seriously? Even if an agent says something like that, that’s a contract?  It’s not – the non-refundable ticket, though, is.  No verbal statement can override a written contract.  Judge Judy can tell you that.

  • $16635417

    I see the principle. This happens often in other areas as well: prepaid hotel rooms and rental cars, tickets for concerts and sporting events. Curious, are there rules for these as well?

  • TonyA_says

    I agree completely. For all we know, the OP talked to someone in India (outsourced call center) who was talking beyond their capabilities.

    Anyone familiar with United’s Contract of Carriage (Rule 270 Voluntary Refunds) and typical Penalty Rules published with Non Refundable fares will know that United does not refund money (to credit card) for the reasons provided by the OP. The best she could have hoped for was a NON REFUNDABLE VOUCHER VALID for the amount of the ticket less the penalty/service fee.
    Sorry but I don’t believe about the “promise” to refund the credit card story. If it ain’t in writing, then what’s there to believe?

  • And the bank that is allowing the overdraft fees to rack up like that doesn’t seem to be in the clear in that.  A POA is all that’s necessary, whether your dad is incapacitated or not.  You might want to contact either an attorney (you need to get that $1000 back) or a group that assists seniors.

  • TonyA_says

    As soon as a United representative said that they would be issued a $300 refund, United owed them that refund. Period.

    First of all, there is NO PROOF anyone from United even said this.

    Second, United (all ALL US carriers) publish a Contract of Carriage that all customers can read  BEFORE they buy a ticket. Also, the Fare Rules are there for the reading and inspection of all customers before they click BUY. These are the rules the customers and the airline agree to abide by.

    The DOT regulates airlines as COMMON CARRIERS. This means that all similarly situated customers should be treated the same. So in reality some call center agent (maybe in India) MUST follow the published tariff rules. Giving the OP special treatment BEYOND the Tariff and COCs should not be permitted since NOT ALL SIMILARLY SITUATED CUSTOMERS will get it.

    Nothing in United’s COC and fare rules stipulate that they will refund your money (for non-refundable fares) if the host you are visiting is ill (or dies) unless maybe they are IMMEDIATE family.

    People forget that WE SHOULD ALL BE TREATED THE SAME if we paid the same fares. If United offered the OP more than the rules allow, then they are being UNFAIR to those who were not given the same treatment under similar circumstances.

  • I’m of the opinion if someone cancels their flight in ample time for the airline to sell the seat again they should get a full refund – no change fees, no other fees, just give them back their money.  The airlines taking the stance they take – no refunds, no matter what, even if the passenger died – is them enriching themselves based on the tragedy of others.  I have to wonder just how much money they make off events such as this?

  • y_p_w

    I wasn’t necessarily thinking of name changes on a resource that is/becomes scarce or otherwise becomes more expensive as a certain date approaces.  I understand that.

    I was thinking of why when someone who paid $160 can get $160 credit to use on a another flight in the same name (of course with change fees), but can’t apply the credit to someone else.  At that point it’s just $160 credit with the price of the tickets still subject to the vagaries of time and demand for certain price levels.

    Speaking of scalping, my favorite place in the world is Yosemite. I’ve gone camping a few times, but in recent years it’s gotten crazy. About a third of the campsites in Yosemite Valley were taken out after the Merced River flood in the late 90s, and online reservations make it almost too easy to book a reservation. When peak season reservations go on sale, there’s a flood of people booking, and with computerized reservations it gets to a point where they’ll literally sell out (save some scattered sites/dates in minutes for a full month of reservations. Anyone trying to book over the phone has no chance. There are some who have taken to using automated programs with several open windows to try and game the system. Then they turn around and resell the reservations for up to five times what they paid for them. It was supposedly against the terms of sale to resell, but people did it anyways.

    At first, it was easy. There was no fee to change the name on the reservation (i.e. buy on behalf of a friend). Then they started cracking down and didn’t allow the reservation name to change. So the scalpers took on a new scheme, which was to sell their reservations, cancel their reservations (including a $10 cancellation fee) and rebook immediately when the reservations went back into the inventory. That later became impossible because they no longer released cancellations back into the regular inventory. They only became available via walk-up inquiries, and only the week before the dates.

    Even with all this, the demand is so great that they’re still selling out within minutes. Only now the scalpers are probably staying away. I think some people are still using automated programs to secure reservations for themselves.

  • TonyA_says

    By that you mean “lip service” like what the OP said she got?
    Any unscrupulous call center agent can promise you what you want to hear to get rid of you.  You don’t even know the agent wrote down anything in your reservation records. Unless you legally record the conversation, then you have no proof you were promised anything. Talk is cheap.

  • DavidYoung2

    One of the problems I think is the huge disparity in price between refundable and non-refundable tickets.  If the price differential were fair and reasonable, some people would opt for the refundable / changeable option.  Alas, it seems only Southwest gets that part.

  • bc

    I initially agreed that United should have given them a refund, not because they were obligated to under the rules of the ticket but because an agent said they would be refunded. However, I’m guessing the agent probably told them to file a claim for refund which left them the “impression” they would get a refund when in reality it was never going to be approved in the first place. 

    I think United did more than their fare share by waiving the initial change fee and allowing them to purchase a new ticket. I wouldn’t expect UAL to bend the rules again for the ticket. Once was already a generous offer. 

  • bc

    See my comment below, I also doubt that a refund was promised. I’m guessing, based on experience, the airline employee told them to file a claim for a refund. The employee had to know the claim would be denied but it was a way to get them off the phone and without promising a refund. 

  • KMiller4816

    He/said she said, and of course, the customer must be telling the truth, right?  Try asking if the call was recorded.  95+% of the time, what the customer says they said or heard is FAR from what is heard on the recording.  I agree with bc, they may have stated to file the claim, not promised a $$$ return.  Bottom line is the article clearly pointed out the fact:  “…United didn’t have to refund anything. Her tickets were nonrefundable.”  Companies don’t just return money because you feel you should get it (even though it’s clearly stated non-refundable” or you engage some “consumer advocate” to help.)  When will Chris state:  “it is what it is, and you have to live with it.”

  • cjr001

    The problem remains that airlines shouldn’t be profiting off of situations like this, and they are.

  • cjr001

    This is just another case where the airlines prefer to do the easy thing than the right thing.

  • I know you’re right I guess it just makes me sad that the airlines (and other corporations) have taken the stance it’s profits before humanity.

  • When a travel loss would be a pinch–a tour, cruise, big airfare, etc.–I buy insurance from a reputable and financially-secure company. 

    I get peace of mind and other travelers don’t have to shell out for my misery, when travel companies inflate prices because they are expected to bite these type of losses. 

  • Kitkator

    Nancy – in theory, a POA is all you need.  The reality is that each individual bank will refuse to honor it.  They pretty much want their own paperwork filled out (too late when you are needing to use it).  The legal system is a very slow, costly, and often useless process in this.  I went through this with my father :(

  • But the reality in this is: This is something that should be taken care of BEFORE it’s needed.  Too often, people put things like this off because they don’t want to face their own mortality.

    One hour with an attorney can save several months of frustration.

  • IGoEverywhere

    When are you and travelers going to stop complaining and trying to bend the rules to suit your needs? Tickets that are bought as a super saver have no refund unless the traveler themselves die. Of course any airline customer service department may bend rules at their discresion – I hope that they never do that! Any decent in person ASTA travel agent would have asked if you would like to buy emergency insurance. “COVERED!” I am glad that you have dismissed the case.

  • emanon256

    We have two separate power of attorney forms.  A durable blanket power of attorney, and a financial power of attorney specifically provided by Wells Fargo, done just in case.  Unfortunately, Wells Fargo refuses to accept either of them.  Their “legal department” reviewed both, and declined both.  They said it must be on their “NEW” form, they just re-published in November 2011.  I did meet with an attorney, and he is not willing to take on Wells Fargo’s Legal team. He said we could sue, but it would cost a lot of money, and probably would not accomplish anything.
    My father has no money, so basically he will just owe the bank these fees forever, they won’t see any of this money.  I would prefer to clean things up, but I have to accept that I don’t have a choice in the matter.  Some of the auto bill companies are not willing to accept the power of attorney either, so they can keep billing his account and charging him more and more fees they will never see either.

  • emanon256

    Wells Fargo.  And yes, it is illegal, but they have a lot of lawyers.

  • Wow, to be going through something this stressful and to have the bank rake you over the coals like this.  I’m so sorry they’re adding to your already difficult time and I’m so sorry you’re going through all of this with your father, as well.

    Wells Fargo sucks on so many levels and this is one of them.  Wells Fargo is, easily, one of the most heartless banks in the country.
    It’s not as though your father will ever need his credit ever again so I’d just let it go and focus on your father.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    I’ve read 3 comments now (as of 12:45 pm CST) that suggest that the OP and family should have taken out travel insurance.  I’m not sure that it would have covered either of the two events: 1) host dying; 2) medical frailty of the father.  I’m trying to recall the last story on resolving an issue with travel insurance – and I thought that there were issues on death outside the immediate family/traveling party and illness other than life-threatening. Thoughts from the more educated/experienced among you?

  • SooZeeQ

    I fly Southwest at the cheapest fare that I can – not so cheap anymore, however.

    With them, if I cancel or change the flight, I do not get a refund but it banks into an account for future travel, no penalties.

    Full fare does get a refund.

    Southwest is always full.

    If only other airlines would read their business plan.

    Be even better if non-refundable and refundable fares were not so great on other airlines.

  • ClareClare

    Lots of comments here raise the possibility that the OP is lying and that nobody at United promised her a refund.  Fine, that is totally possible, I get that.

    BUT what leaves United still smelling like a skunk in this case is the fact that they didn’t even respond–and TWICE, first to the OP, and then to Chris himself!

    Stand back while I give this crappy airline a free lesson in demonstrating customer service even when they think a customer is lying:

    a) Customer asserts that she was told she’d get a refund, but never did. 
    b)United responds promptly, courteously, and in writing along these lines: “We are sorry that this has happened.  We’re also truly surprised that you were told that you would receive a refund, since such would directly contradict our policy.  But we would like the opportunity to make things right, both by giving our valued customers what they were promised, and also by educating our own staff on the correct way to handle such situations.  To that end, could you please let us know the name and any other identifying info you may have about the United employee who gave you this information, along with the date/time you spoke, etc.?”

    If the OP is lying, well, that’s the end of it!  She falls off the radar, and United evidences a sterling example of professional courtesy without paying a dime.

    If the OP ISN’T lying, she might come up with, “it was the last Tuesday in September, just before noon, the woman told me her name was Maisie, or maybe it was May Z, dunno, and she sounded like she’s an older woman, and originally from Brooklyn.”  If United finds that May Zanelli was working customer service that morning… PAY THE OP and give May some remedial training.

    If the OP is not lying, but didn’t ask for a name, can’t remember anything much that would identify the person, well, she’ll rue her bad luck, but at least she can’t criticize United for rudeness!

    How much would all this have cost United?  At most, the cost of the refunded ticket.

    But how much will what actually happened in this case cost United?  Guess it depends on how many people read Chris’s column!  Thank you, Chris!  Potential United customers, including me, are grateful for the info!

  • Carchar

    I haven’t read the comments yet, but I voted “yes” only because United led the Nemeth’s to believe that they would receive the refund. That they were required to submit the paperwork over and over again when nothing was going to be done was abhorrent.

  • Lindabator

    I voted yes, because they had already agreed to.  Once you agree to a refund, DO IT!

  • Lindabator

    No, because there are rules – and everyone thinks they shouldn’t apply in “their case” – but her father wasn’t the one who died, he just could no longer travel, and they wanted his refunded.  Normally, that would be just a loss, but once they agreed to refund them they should have stepped up to the plate and done so.  Don’t know why they didn’t!

  • Lindabator

    But her father DIDN’T die, he just could no longer travel (their host died first, then dad got injured).  But you are right, they do not give refunds for medical reasons – and I can tell you from past experience working for the airlines, I could have spent all day on the phone with folks who thought THEIR case should be the exception (ALL of them!). 

  • Lindabator

    Because of legal issues most have had problems with in the past.  I book and pay for a ticket to Hawaii, and my ex-boyfriend finds out and cancels it without my knowledge.  If he could then transfer it to another ticket, it is the same as if he stole it from me, and the airlines would be in collusion.  Tricky situation, but it has come up in the past – so now – ticket is yours, yours and only yours!

  • Lindabator

    You cannot transfer them to someone else any longer – I think they’ve finally bit it enough times to finally fall in line with everyone else.

  • Lindabator

    I used to work for United – yep, its due to fraud, plain and simple.

  • Lindabator

    They are running a business, with specific rules YOU AGREE TO when you buy the ticket.  They already waived $300 for the daughter’s and her husband’s tickets, as well as $150 for the father’s ticket.  Now he cannot even use that, and the airline should give him a refund?  Try that with any other business – no shows at theatres, sporting events, etc.  You don’t show, you lose!  Why do we expect the airlines to bear the brunt?  And as someone who heard ALL the excuses, EVERY “situation” is special and should not have to follow rules!  Funny, but when I buy a nonrefundable ticket, I travel on the dates I booked!  So do most other people. 

  • Lindabator

    Because he dealt with this AFTER the fact.  He should have requested the refund at the desk BEFORE taking the train. 

  • Lindabator

    That’s the only problem I have with this – unless, of course, the airlines never actually did?!?

  • Lindabator

    Great point!  And as someone who used to work for the airlines, I can say that EVERYONE who called in for an exception thought they were entitled because it was a special circumstance (meaning it happened to THEM!).  Unfortunatley, others travel everyday and bite the change fees and lost old tickets because they can’t use them.

  • Lindabator

    They didn’t say no refund due to death, as the father is still alive – and ALL airlines refund the tickets of those who have passed, with proper documentation.  But you have to play fair as well – if you want the airlines to assume ALL MONETARY LOSSES due to your problem, buy a fully refundable fare.  Want cheap, accept the penalties!

  • Lindabator

    It would have covered them at LEAST in the 2nd case of the father not being able to travel, as they were booked to travel with him.  And depending upon the relationship of their “host” they may have been covered in the first situation as well.

  • Lindabator

    Since they requested paperwork several times on this, they may just have closed the case as irreconcilable.  And I don’t get why folks here think everyone else but “special” folks should have to follow the rules!  There are ALWAYS special circumstances – but you assume those risks and costs when you agree to a NONREFUNDABLE ticket!

  • Lindabator

    Unless, as I’ve seen in the past, they did not submit the CORRECT paperwork. 

  • Joe_D_Messina

    There’d be cases similar to this no matter how many airlines there were to choose from. There are always going to be rules and regulations and there will always be cases where somebody wants an exception to be made for them but are told “no.”

  • SoBeSparky

    False expectations.  There is a restricted fare and a flexible fare.  Plain and simple.  Names cannot be changed.  Easy to understand.  Why are people whining about exceptions every day when the restrictions (now) are clearly stated before a ticket is purchased?

    It is easy to develop a misunderstanding on a telephone conversation.  Who really knows what was said or implied?  Until it is in writing, or changed on line instantly, nothing is certain.  

  • TonyA_says

    OK let’s discuss each event.

    Event #1. Travelers need to cancel flight because their host (a non relative or business partner) was hospitalized and eventually dies.

    A standard travel insurance policy will NOT cover this reason. The host is not a non-traveling FAMILY MEMBER. The only thing you can do in this case is to get a CANCEL FOR ANY REASON COVERAGE. But that may not cover 100% of your cost. (TravelGuard only covers 50% of your cost and you must cancel at least 48 hours before the trip starts).

    Event #2. Father cancels travel because he broke his hip. If the father bought travel insurance (and hopefully the breaking of his hip is not caused by a preexisting medical condition), then the insurance will cover him.

    Make sure you understand the insurance will cover 100% of the NON-RECOVERABLE cost of the ticket. So only the cost that is FORFEITED is covered. So it is debatable what will be covered IF UNITED ALLOWS THE PASSENGER TO REBOOK ANOTHER TRIP WITHIN A YEAR. If this is the case, then your only loss is the change fee (about $150).

    Now as far as UNITED’s COC and Fare Rules are concerned neither event will cause a refund for a NON-REFUNDABLE ticket. IMO, the OP could be imagining things or misinterpreting what was discussed on the phone. The OP is requesting things BEYOND what she, her husband and father agreed to when they bought their tickets. That said, I voted NO. UA already gave her and her husband the ability to reuse their tickets within a year. What she wants is for UA to refund her Dad’s ticket to her credit card. UA has no obligation to do that. Her Dad could request to get to reuse his ticket for a year (just like she and her husband got). Nothing more.

  • FirstClassRogue

    You do realize they sell non-refundable tickets, don’t you?

  • TonyA_says

    So that everyone here will believe travelagentman, I will post the part in UA COCs that says “it”:



    That said I’m surprised UA gave them one year to reissue tickets and waive the change penalty fee because their HOST died. Unless the host was an immediate family member then UA bended backwards already.

  • Bill Armstrong

    People die all the time. It might sound heartless, but if they had to give a full refund every time that happened, they would go out of business.

    My father died just before Christmas and I had to pay $2400 for two tickets instead of the normal $798.  At any given time, there are thousands of people dealing with flying to funerals, flying to be with a sick person, not flying due to a death.  I’m surprised the rules are as generous as they are.

    I’m sorry..this sort of thing eventually happens to everyone and sorry for your losses…but I think you can’t expect the airlines to do all that much or that’s all they would do half the time.

  • TonyA_says

    I also doubt that any UA agent will tell the OP to wait for 2 billing cycles to see the REFUND on her credit card bill UNLESS the OP has provided a DEATH CERTIFICATE of the pax (her father who did not die). I think the agent would have told her to send the paperwork in first then only will the refund be processed. I find this conversation quite bogus.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    On the 2nd scenario, what I was thinking is that the father’s ticket could be used at a later date; breaking a hip isn’t necessarily a lifetime disability (can’t speak to the actual medical situation as that’s not my expertise).  There’s a (remote) possibility that the father could use the ticket at some point within the allowed period.

    I’m thinking that a series of delays in using the ticket isn’t a covered expense under most travel policies.  Hence, the suggestion that travel insurance would have covered this situation seems a little far out.

    BTW, I only voted “YES” because I think that if United’s representatives said “yes” to a refund over the phone, even if contradicting company policy, then United needs to make good on their employee’s promise.  Hard to prove, and possibly it was all a misunderstanding (easy to do with an overseas call center, which United uses a lot), but those people don’t go off script for love nor money.   I personally think it should be “NO” for the reasons that you and others have given; the contract doesn’t say so.  But a rep shouldn’t say otherwise.  

  • TonyA_says

    Yes the father’s non-refundable ticket could have been used within a year if he applied for it. But based on what I read, the OP thought they were getting a refund instead. I agree with you that a customer service agent should never offer anything above what the contract stipulates. But I find it hard to believe a UA agent would have told her to wait for a refund UNLESS the OP had already sent it paperwork. The agent needs to get the paperwork first before the credit process can begin. I have yet to meet an agent who willy nilly goes about offering refunds. From the get go, agents are trained NOT TO REFUND TICKETS unless passengers are holding UNRESTRICTED FARES. [Note: I don’t think even Southwest will refund a non-refundable ticket if you break your hip. They’ll put money back to your Southwest fund for you to spend later.] This case sounds so unbelievable to me.

  • TonyA_says

    Chris, just to be precise – shouldn’t the poll be: Should United have refunded Dee’s DAD’s ticket?

    Dee and her husband already agreed with UA to reuse their own tickets within a year.
    It’s her Dad’s ticket she thought was being Refunded because he broke his hip and she claims a United Rep told her just to wait for the credit on her card.

  • bodega3

    Thank you Tony.  I was scratching my head on that myself!

  • emanon256

    I couldn’t go to a counter. I never even made it to the airport, all of the flights were canceled before I even left for the airport, and I did all the re-booking by phone.  On the phone they said they could not get me to DC until after I was supposed to return and I asked them to refund it then, they said they could not because it’s a $150 change fee and the ticket was less than $150, so it no longer had any value.  That’s why I wrote in the letter.

  • This is the responsibility of the airlines , and why we need to
    cope with these results ?
    I am very angry, http://www.sino1store.com/ wholesale Car parts the
    last time I was airline seizure , causing me great loss

  • I doubt that’s the reason why tickets can’t be transferred to someone else.  There are any number of easy protections to prevent that scenario including  requiring the transfer to be done in person by the named person on the ticket.

  • Its hardly the same comparion. Most businesses have reasonable rules which don’t offend traditional business values.  For example, theatre tickets are transferable to a third party without any penalties. So are sporting events tickets, etc. In some states you can even resell the ticket as long as you don’t exceed the face value of the ticket.

    Only airlines make the tickets non transferable in an obvious money grab.

  • Is that a real valid concern? Are airline agents routinely doing that? Actually, if you are concerned about that the mantra remains valid. Hang up, call back, ask to confirm what was written in the record.  Then you know if anything the agent was just BSing you.

  • Perhaps

    But compare airlines with the rest of the travel industry, i.e. hotels and rental cars.  As a rule, both hotel and rental cars have far more competition and curiously much less onerous rules.

    If we accept Chris’ published cases as statistically significant, we notice that people have issues with all airlines.  By comparison the issues with car rental companies are overwhelming with the lower end ones, and hotel issues are relatively rare, especially with the chains.

  • I’m an attorney although not a tax attorney.  When you buy a refundable ticket you purchased something of value.  The taxes are based upon the value at the time of the purchase.  What happens to the ticket afterwards has no effect on the taxes.  The fact that the ticket’s value later becomes zero is irrelevant.

    Suppose you buy some artwork for 10k and pay the sale tax.  If the artwork is later discovered to be a forgery, and thereby worthless, you can’t automatically get the taxes back.

  • Sorry, totally untrue.  A verbal statement can modify a contract unless the written contract specifically prohibits oral modification or the contract must be in writing to be enforceable, e.g. real estate.  Don’t try to learn anything from Judge Judy.

    If the OP could prove her position, she’d win hands down.

  • You’ve misundestood the term “common carrier”.  True a common carrier cannot discriminate.  But what that means is that they offer their services to anyone who can pay for those services.

    It does not mean that all passengers are treated equally. If that were true, then a frequent flier program would be illegal.  Consider, regular passenger buys a ticket at the counter and pays a $20 fee.  Super Plutonium passenger buys a ticket and the fee is waived.  Not exactly equal.  But it’s ok.

    The relevance is that United is perfectly within its rights to cut the OP some slack and there is nothing inherently inconsistent with its status as a common carrier.

  • Small claims might not be a bad idea.  There is a reasonable chance that the airline won’t show up and she wins by default.

  • No one is saying that the airlines should assume ALL MONETARY LOSSES due to your problems.  We are saying that there are certain circumstances where a ticket should be refundable regardless of the fare paid.  The airlines agree death.  United also agrees with jury duty and military orders.  I merely want them to add serious illess of immediate family.

  • TonyA_says

    Carver, I am simply reacting to the strategy that you mentioned. If you are shopping for a “nicer” venue (calling more than once to get a sympathetic CSR), the agents can also make a note that you are doing that and they don’t have to tell you what they wrote about you.

    You as a lawyer should really know what the word COMMON in common carriage means. It means that the rules on the tariffs are enforced equally among all similarly situated would-be and existing passengers. The airlines are not free to pick and choose which provisions apply for each passenger, otherwise they will be able to discriminate or simply craft individualize private fares. So it should not matter which CSR you call. They all should apply the rules equally.

  • Lindabator

    Sounds good, but you will ALWAYS have those “special” circumstances folks whining it is unfair – too far to the airport for them to to it, etc.  So just easier to say no and not have to deal with an even bigger problem. 

  • Lindabator

    Ah, misunderstood.  But you should have gotten the offer of a refund due to the multiple cancellations.  Sorry this didn’t work out – and sorry no one offered better than this! 

  • Lindabator

    They also offer fully refundable.  They offer a choice of both so ACCOMMODATE the person looking for the cheap seat – but in so doing, the customer now assumes the risks.  And try not showing up for a theatre presentation or sporting event – do you really think they’ll just give a refund out?

  • Lindabator

    And then how do you determine the “seriousness” of the illness?  When I worked for the airlines (way back), we DID accept medical excuses, but then found such excessive abuse, it was no longer acceptable.  I once had a surgeon, travelling with a group of surgeons, to a surgical convention who had the nerve to ask if he could get a refund with a medical note.  HHMMM… by your standards, SURE!  by a business’, HE** NO!  And every time a rule is bent, someone else thinks another should be, etc.  It is never-ending.  There also has to be a point where we all just assume it is out of hand.

  • TonyA_says

    Credits (which the unused part of a ticket is) is not transferable because as we all know, unscrupulous people (and travel agents, too) will TRADE them. Just look at what happened to Southwest “Funds” and Delta e-certs not that long ago.

  • TonyA_says

    My son won a spot in our magnet school. If he decides not to go there, he cannot transfer that privilege to his cousin.

  • TonyA_says

    No Carver, these Travel Taxes and Fees are specifically levied because you WILL USE something. If you don’t get to use that something then they should be returned.

    For example, the Airport Passenger Facility Fee (typically $4.50) and the  (TSA) Security Fee $2.50 is charged PER ENPLANEMENT. If you never enplaned (departed) then there should be no charge. Same for US immigration, customs, APHIS fees, etc.

  • TonyA_says

    Carver, did you ever do TRANSPORTATION work before deregulation? We had books and books of tariffs just to make sure every shipper PAID the same price.

    Shippers who were cut some slack (given a discount) off tariff could be charged at some point in the future for the difference they did not  pay.

    Your example of Frequent Flyer Program is flawed. Everyone CAN JOIN an airlines FQTV program. But all similarly situated FQTV members must have the same rules applied to them for fares.

    UA can give away vouchers as hush money when people come to Elliott to complain. That’s how they can go around the implementing the rules equally. But to outright say we will EXCUSE THIS ONE from the rules is verbotten.

  • TonyA_says

    Re: people have issues with all airlines.

    In that case people should begin to accept reality or stop flying.

    I specialize in International Air travel. I sell tickets of the 5-Star rated Airlines day in, day out. The 5-Star year-to-year mainstays are Singapore (SQ), Cathay Pacific (CX), Asiana (OZ) and Qatar (QR) airlines. If you still don’t like these airlines, perhaps you should consider buying your own jet or chartering one.

    That said, all of the four 5-star airlines offer DISCOUNTED fares to their destinations. If you look at the RULES for these discounted fares, they are also most NON-REFUNDABLE or REFUNDABLE WITH A SUBSTANTIAL PENALTY FEE. All of them are NON-TRANSFERABLE. In other words, even the world’s best airlines have strict rules that most people can whine about.

    Frankly, I don’t know what “all the people” want or think they can get. But my message to them is “get real”. If you want to be treated better ride in the front cabin. Money talks and BS walks.

  • bodega3

    They use to.  But the phony Doctors notes caused them to change their policies. 

  • bodega3

    Hertz and National get complaints, too, maybe not to this site like Enterprise does.  Many of the high end hotels have issues and I have given two of my own with 5 star properties.  It could be that guests who have issues/problems with those hotels know have to go about getting their problem resolved and don’t have the same foot stomping, I want something for my problem need to write to an ombudsman?

  • finance_tony

    “No employee of UA has the authority to alter, modify, or waive any provision of the contract of carriage or this tariff…..”

  • TonyA_says

    You are 100% correct. That’s standard in all COCs and tariffs for common carriers. Been trying to say that all along but Carver does not believe it.

  • judyserienagy

    It’s a cruel world.  If you can’t afford to lose the money you pay for a trip, then book tickets that you can change without a fee.  The penalty to rebook tix you’ve already paid for is annoying, but that’s how the seller wants it and you’re agreeing to it when you buy the ticket.  People don’t like it, but it’s pretty simple stuff.

  • Bill Armstrong

    Here;s a good heads up:  United Customer service doesn’t seem to read or comprehend letters that are sent to them.  There is no sense explaining something to them.  They will pick one key word or phrase out of your letter, even if it isn’t the key point, and respond with a form letter.

    They might as well not even use people to craft the response, it often has little or no bearing upon what  you’ve talked about.  Follow up letters are often ignored, even if you take pains to explain it to them.

    I have written to United Airlines customer service twice, and both times it has been an exercise in frustration.  They are utterly and completely useless.

Get smart. Sign up for the newsletter.