Yes, we’re siding with the rules-are-rules commenters on this case. Here’s why.

By | November 12th, 2016

Last year, Sarah and Elizabeth Larkin booked a trip to Europe through Expedia. Their tickets were on Turkish Airlines and they bought travel insurance through Aon Affinity.

They were supposed to fly this summer. You can probably see where this is going, right?

The Larkins intended to return on a flight departing from Istanbul, but nine days before they were scheduled to leave, terrorists bombed the Istanbul airport. They rebooked their flight home and then attempted to secure refunds for their original airfares.

When Turkish Airlines refused to issue refunds, they contacted our advocates.

Our comments section teems with posts from readers of the by-the-book variety, who are quick to come down against the persons who request assistance from us on the grounds of “rules-are-rules”: even though they received terrible customer service from a business, that business’ conduct was legal and consistent with its terms and conditions.

The Larkins’ situation will no doubt be one of those cases.

But this time, we’re taking the “rules-are-rules” side. There’s nothing we can do to help the Larkins.

If this astounds you, or seems cold on our part, consider the facts:

The Larkins booked their original flights last September, with the intention of stopping in Istanbul for a few days. In January, concerned that conditions in Istanbul were becoming “progressively dangerous,” the Larkins contacted Expedia to request that their return flights be changed, but Expedia refused to accommodate their request and required them to fly through Istanbul. The Larkins succeeded in adding a flight to Barcelona to their itinerary, but their return flight remained unchanged.

The Larkins’ return flight was scheduled for July 7. As soon as they heard about the attacks on June 28, they called Turkish Airlines and Expedia to request refunds for their return airfares. Unfortunately, they couldn’t get through to Turkish Airlines or to Expedia. All of their calls were dropped. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department issued a warning to American citizens not to travel through Turkey, and air traffic between the U.S. and Turkey was suspended temporarily.

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After multiple attempts to call both Turkish Airlines and Expedia, the Larkins booked new return flights on British Airways, which included a layover in Athens, Greece. When the Larkins arrived in Athens, they went to the Turkish Airlines customer service desk at the Athens airport to request assistance. But Turkish Airlines’ agent informed them that Turkish Airlines was issuing refunds only for flights scheduled through July 5. Any airfares for flights scheduled subsequent to July 5 would not be refunded.

Once the Larkins were home, they called Turkish Airlines, which first put them on hold and then transferred them to several different agents. Finally, a Turkish Airlines customer service representative told the Larkins that they would be able to get partial refunds for their airfares, but they would have to have Expedia request the refunds on their behalf. Expedia’s agent told the Larkins that their communications with Turkish Airlines indicated that Turkish Airlines had refused to issue the Larkins a refund; therefore, “there was nothing Expedia could do.”

The Larkins then filed a claim on their travel insurance policy with Aon Affinity, sending an article outlining the attack, their travel insurance policy information, and the British Airways flight, only to be told that their claim was denied as terrorist attacks were “not covered under this travel protection plan.”

At that point the Larkins contacted our advocacy team. (Contact information for Turkish Airlines and Expedia can be found on our website.)

Turkish Airlines’ general conditions of carriage provide that

If the passenger wishes a refund of his or her ticket for reasons other than those set out in … this Article the amount of the refund shall be:

  • if no portion of the ticket has been used, an amount equal to the fare paid, less any applicable service charges or cancellation fees;
  • if the portion of the ticket has been used, the refund will be an amount equal to the difference between the fare paid and the applicable fare for travel between the points for which the ticket has been used, less any applicable service charges or cancellation fees.

This language assumes that the ticket in question was refundable and that the reason is not the result of any action or omission caused by Turkish Airlines. We don’t know the nature of the Larkins’ tickets, but Turkish Airlines’ unwillingness to issue refunds to the Larkins suggests that their airfares were nonrefundable. Unfortunately, there’s no language in Turkish Airlines’ general conditions of carriage that indicates that terrorism is a reason to issue a refund for a nonrefundable ticket.

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And even allowing for Turkish Airlines’ voluntarily offering refunds to passengers and the State Department’s travel warning, the Larkins still made their request outside the window of ticket dates for which Turkish Airlines had announced that it was willing to issue refunds.

Expedia’s terms of use is silent on any responsibility on its part to assist travelers in rebooking flights in instances of terrorism, but does indicate that

Additional terms and conditions will apply to your reservation and purchase of travel—related goods and services that you select. Please read these additional terms and conditions carefully. In particular, if you have purchased an airfare, please ensure you read the full terms and conditions of carriage issued by the Supplier, which can be found on the Supplier’s website. You agree to abide by the terms and conditions of purchase imposed by any supplier with whom you elect to deal, including, but not limited to, payment of all amounts when due and compliance with the supplier’s rules and restrictions regarding availability and use of fares, products, or services.

So Expedia’s refusal to assist the Larkins, while poor customer service, is consistent with this provision of its terms of use, although it’s unclear why Expedia refused to assist the Larkins in changing their original flight home and insisted that they had to fly from Istanbul. There’s no language in Expedia’s terms of use or Turkish Airlines’ general conditions of carriage that suggests that Expedia could not have found other return flights for the Larkins that departed from alternative locations – even on Turkish Airlines.

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As for Aon Affinity, terrorism is a frequent exclusion from coverage under travel insurance policies. And insurance companies seldom waive their policy terms in favor of the insured.

So unfortunately, even though the Larkins were not direct victims of terrorism, they were indirect financial victims of the attacks in Istanbul that led them to cancel their flight home. We have to send this to the Case Dismissed file.

Should we have dismissed the Larkins' case?

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  • Alan Gore

    This is another vague-fear case. The Larkins need a more specific and personal reason for cancelling than “a terrorist event happened nine days before my visit.”

  • Regina Litman

    July 5 – sounds like an arbitrary date to me. Thus, my Yes vote for bending the rules.

  • MarkKelling

    The date was chosen based on when thing were expected to return to “normal” in Istanbul allowing the airline to conduct business without major inconvenience. It could have been moved to a later date if other incidents occurred, but none did that would impact air operations.

    I understand someone getting spooked about traveling there. But unfortunately for this traveler, being afraid is not a covered reason for cancellation.

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