Yes, the airlines do sell refundable tickets. Yes, you should have booked one.

Yolanda Moroz didn’t know that airlines sell refundable tickets. Had she purchased one, she might not be asking our advocates to help her get a refund for her nonrefundable American Airlines ticket.

Unfortunately, air ticket pricing is a difficult, sometimes painful game for travelers to play. Because airline customers are willing to accept, however grudgingly, a wide variety of tradeoffs in exchange for cheap airfares, airlines feel free to sell nonrefundable tickets, limit refundability of other tickets, and require their customers to pay for any amenities for which they feel like charging.

Good customer service by airlines would suggest that all air tickets should be refundable. But given that this isn’t the case, air passengers need to realize that they may not actually be doing themselves a favor in the long run by purchasing tickets that are nonrefundable or have limited refundability or amenities. Should they need to cancel or reschedule their trips, or otherwise change their reservations, their prepaid fees may be sunk costs for which they can’t get refunds – even in emergencies like Moroz’s situation.

Moroz paid for three tickets from Chicago to San Jose, Calif. One was for herself for a work trip; the other two were for her mother and son, whom she planned to bring with her.

Then two weeks before they were scheduled to depart, Moroz’s son was hospitalized for four days.

Moroz canceled her son’s flight on American Airlines’ website and asked for a refund for his ticket. She faxed two forms to American indicating that her son could not travel. But she received an unsatisfying generic reply. She then posted about her case on Twitter. Her tweet resulted in a response from American asking for more information, promising to look into her case and expressing the hope that her son was feeling better.

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While waiting for American Airlines’ customer service agents to look into her case, Moroz emailed Sean Bentel, American’s vice president of customer relations, to ask for help in getting a refund for her son’s ticket:

While waiting for a reply I emailed Mr. Bentel who I think is VP of customer relations, and his assistant called me and emailed saying I could not get a refund but my son could get a credit. Not even me, but my son who might not fly anywhere at least in the next year.

That same day I emailed Mr. Bentel I think I received four emails and two calls. Funny how fast that happened.

All to say sorry, no refund. I asked for review because I do believe this circumstance should qualify as an exception. Also, I don’t fly often at all, maybe once every five to seven years so I had no idea you can buy refundable tickets? … I always figured if you canceled for emergencies with proof you could get refunded.

Sadly, Moroz figured wrong. Even when a nonrefundable ticket holder has proof of an emergency, nonrefundable tickets are nonrefundable. American might waive the change fee and allow the full value of the ticket to be reused, but it won’t issue a refund.

Our advocates often receive requests like Moroz’s from air travelers with nonrefundable tickets who want help in seeking refunds. They believe that the circumstances requiring them to cancel their flights are special. The airlines disagree.

Purchasers of nonrefundable air tickets might consider obtaining travel insurance coverage that will reimburse the costs of their tickets should they need to cancel their reservations.

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They also can check out our company contacts section, which contains executive contact information for many airlines including American Airlines, so that they can try to self-advocate their cases by writing to each executive and allowing him or her a week to respond before escalating their cases to the next higher-ranking executive listed.

But we can’t advocate for them with the airlines, because despite often having compelling needs for refunds, they don’t have actual cases. We can advocate only for refunds for passengers with refundable tickets.

So Moroz’s son’s airfare has flown up, up and away. We hope he recovers soon. But we can’t help her get her money back.

Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Elliott.org. Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

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