This United Airlines refund request has dragged on for two years

Maureen Spurr’s United Airlines refund request has dragged on for two long years. It looks like she’ll never get her money back. Or will she?

Two years ago, she planned to fly to San Luis Obispo, Calif., for Christmas. After falling ill and landing in the hospital, she canceled the trip. Her doctor wrote a letter confirming she was too sick to travel. She sent the letter to the airline with her refund request.

And waited. And waited.

Unfortunately for Spurr, she had neither refundable tickets nor travel insurance. And she made her reservations through a third-party website. Her story is a warning that all these conditions make it harder to recover lost airfares when you need to cancel a flight.

Cancel your trip — that’s an order!

In December 2016, Spurr booked a flight through Expedia from Chicago to San Luis Obispo. She would fly via Phoenix on American Airlines on the outbound trip. Then she’d fly home from San Francisco on United Airlines. Spurr paid $761 for her tickets, which were nonrefundable, but she did not purchase travel insurance.

Then Spurr became ill and needed a hospital stay. (She asked that we not reveal the exact nature of her illness except to say that her condition is not covered by travel insurance.) Her doctors instructed her to cancel her trip.

Spurr contacted Expedia and canceled the flights. Sometimes airlines will give refunds for nonrefundable airfares, so Spurr asked Expedia if she could submit a United Airlines refund request.

Unfortunately, Spurr apparently received some incorrect information from Expedia’s customer service agent. The agent led her to believe that although her tickets were nonrefundable, she could request a compassionate refund of her airfares from United. According to the agent, her refund request would take six weeks to process.

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Submitting a United Airlines refund request

Spurr followed up with Expedia when the six-week window closed. Expedia informed Spurr that,

United Airlines requires that all passengers contact them directly for refund consideration. Please note that your refund request is subject to the airline’s review and approval. This is not a guarantee that the airline will offer a refund and Expedia cannot override the airline’s decision.

Spurr received instructions from Expedia on how to submit an “extenuating circumstances refund (ECR) request” to United. The instructions provided a fax number at United for Spurr to submit her request. They also required Spurr to include a letter from her doctor on his letterhead, describing the reason she couldn’t travel.

Why didn’t Spurr receive correct information from Expedia about how to submit a United Airlines refund request? It’s normal for airlines to require that passengers who cancel because of illness submit medical documentation with their refund requests. But airlines usually require that passengers who book through travel agents submit all claims for refunds through the travel agents. This includes passengers who book their flights through third-party online agents like Expedia.

Strung along

Spurr sent United Airlines her refund request in accordance with the instructions but received no response — and no refund. She later discovered that the fax number in the instructions was incorrect.

She then tried emailing United. The airline replied that she would have to use United’s online form to submit a new refund request. And she would have to include the same documentation.

Then Spurr received another response from United. This time, United stated that its agents couldn’t find her ticket number. United asked Spurr yet again to resubmit her refund request through its online form.

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Spurr continued to pursue her United Airlines refund request for over a year. Then United sent her the following reply:

We regret that you were unable to complete your travel as originally planned. Your particular ticket is valid for transportation for one year from the date of original issue when completely unused. If the ticket has been partially used, it is valid for one year from the date travel commenced. The referenced ticket is beyond this time frame and no longer has monetary value. Therefore, we cannot issue a refund.

Spurr wrote again to United, asking the airline to reconsider its decision, but United refused to issue her a refund.

No case for our advocates

Unfortunately for Spurr, neither United’s contract of carriage nor Expedia’s terms of use contain any provisions that help her.

United’s contract of carriage indicates that it “will not refund any portion of a ticket that is purchased with a nonrefundable fare.” It will only allow an unused nonrefundable fare to be credited to a new ticket. And Expedia’s terms of use provide that the air tickets sold through its site are subject to the airlines’ rules.

When United upheld its decision not to issue Spurr a refund, she asked our advocates for help. (Executive contact information for United and Expedia is available on our website.)

Our advocate, Michelle Couch-Friedman, told Spurr that United had provided a one-year credit for her airfare, which had since expired. Friedman also indicated that there are no regulations that require an airline to refund a nonrefundable ticket, even for a hospitalized passenger. She pointed out that Spurr might have benefited from travel insurance coverage, although insurance companies don’t generally cover Spurr’s specific condition (which she prefers that we not disclose).

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Spurr could inquire whether her credit card provided travel insurance coverage that would reimburse her airfares. It’s unlikely, though, that she could recover the cost of her tickets after so much time had passed.

So we are filing her request for help as a Case Dismissed. We are writing about her story to remind travelers to consider insurance and to submit requests for help as soon as possible. We can’t help you recover unused airfares after airline credits expire.

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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