But pets are family, too — right? Not if you’re flying

We recently heard the heartwarming story of a pilot who diverted a flight to save a dog in the cargo hold. It’s always nice when we’re reminded that airlines are staffed by real people who have the same feelings we do.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t translate into policy.

Jenna Valdez wrote to us this week asking for suggestions to contact American Airlines for a refund on a nonrefundable ticket. Her dog is 15 years old and very sick, so she understandably doesn’t want to leave her. She’s had the dog since it was 8 weeks old and notes that if something happened to her fur child while she’s gone, she would never forgive herself. Her husband has also been out of work for some time, so it would be “a huge hit” for them to absorb the cost of the tickets.

I’m sympathetic to Valdez’s situation. Truly. In fact, I just adopted a new 8-week-old puppy last weekend. (For anyone interested, she’s on Instagram @RosieTheTinyRiveter.)

But folks, it bears repeating: Nonrefundable tickets should be considered nonrefundable.

According to American Airlines’ customer service FAQs, nonrefundable tickets generally can’t be refunded, but exceptions may be available for unused portions of the ticket under the following circumstances (with proper supporting documentation, of course):

  • Death of the passenger
  • Death of a family member or traveling companion
  • Schedule changes implemented by American Airlines that are unacceptable to the customer and result in a change of 61 – 120 minutes

Even then, these situations are subject to specific conditions that determine whether a customer can receive a refund or flight voucher. The same rules apply if travel plans change due to personal emergencies.

Related story:   These honeymooners forgot to read Royal Caribbean's no-empathy clause

Even if Valdez and I both believe her dog’s poor health should be considered a personal emergency involving a family member, I don’t think that will fly with American Airlines. I also don’t know when she booked the tickets and whether her dog was sick at the time of booking, but I urge our readers to consider life circumstances like elderly pets and sick relatives before purchasing nonrefundable fares (especially without travel insurance).

That won’t help Valdez now, though. What might help her — if she booked directly through American Airlines — is the next portion of the customer service FAQs, which states that subject to certain restrictions and charges defined in the rules of the fare, the value of a wholly unused nonrefundable ticket may be used towards the purchase of a new ticket. Travel on such reissued tickets must commence no later than one year from the date of issue of the original ticket.

If it’s been less than a year since the original date of issue, we recommend that Valdez contact American Airlines’ reservation agents and cite this particular customer service FAQ to see what can be done. It’s possible, depending on the specific fare she purchased, that the airline will be willing to offer her flight credit to use within the year (perhaps for a fee).

Valdez, pet lovers everywhere wish you luck.

That said, readers, should we advocate to get Valdez a refund or flight credit, or is she on her own? Let us know your thoughts in the comments. We’d love to know if anyone has faced a similar situation with success.

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Heather Dratler

Lover of all things travel and hospitality, both from a personal and professional standpoint. A PR pro by day, I've represented a wide variety of clients in the travel industry since 2008. Sharing my passion for and knowledge of travel makes me happy. Cornell University graduate. Follow me on Twitter @HeatherLori7.

  • Bill___A

    I’m sorry their dog is sick. It is very sad when any loved one reaches the end of their life. My take on this is that American should be politely asked (not shamed) into refunding the money. Most businesses have some discretion in how they administer their policies and it is reasonable to ask them to exercise it in this case.

    This article brings to mind another question though – is there currently a travel insurance product that takes into account family pet issues, and if not, is there a market for one?

  • Kerr

    So a sick dog is enough to justify a full refund? Where are airlines supposed to draw the line?

  • John Galbraith

    Hi Bill – Here in the uk it seems easy to buy. A lot of insurance companies seems to over it including proving cover it you cancel before you go or if you pet gets ill whilst you are on holiday. You just have to pay more money for your holiday insurance.

  • JenniferFinger

    That’s a very sad situation, and while American should be compassionate enough to refund the ticket fee, I wouldn’t advocate for Ms. Valdez if they don’t. Nonrefundable tickets are still nonrefundable, just like the column says.

  • backprop

    At least in the U.S., “cancel for any reason” policies seem to be made for this type of situation. They’re more expensive because by their nature they’re inviting more one-off situations like this.

    But in short, I can’t really support advocating for this beyond what American already offers (in the form of potentially applying the value to another ticket).

    Also, I don’t understand why it would be “a huge hit” to absorb the cost of the tickets. They already absorbed the cost of the tickets, presumably.

  • Richard

    I love dogs and have had many, and buried many. No matter how you cut it, a 15 year old dog is old and old dogs need more care and have more problems. That situation was foreseeable at the time of purchase.

    However, many, in fact almost all, details were left out of the story. Like what actually happened? I assume she bought tickets and now can’t fly because the dog is in poor health. But, it would have been helpful to provide that information to help avoid assumptionson the readers’ part.

  • MarkKelling

    Well, they have the option of getting a voucher for the ticket amount, minus applicable fees, to fly later. Not knowing what is wrong with the dog or if it is expected to recover soon, it is difficult to know if that option would allow another flight to be taken before the voucher would expire.

    They had to “absorb” the ticket cost when they bought it. If the husband lost his job unexpectedly after the tickets were purchased, then I would agree that absorbing the cost of the tickets would be a hardship at this point.

    And a pet is not a relative, family member or a child. A pet is a pet, a companion. Yes, it is sad when you lose one that has been with you a very long time (I just lost my cat after 20 years and still miss it). I have had pets all my life. I enjoyed having each and every one. Some even slept in my bed. All were treated well and cared for as best as possible and when they died, I grieved. But I never looked at one like I would a human.

  • technomage1

    That was my thought. I loved my cat to pieces, and wasn’t able to travel much when he was older. I didn’t want him to be alone at the end. After years of loyalty, how can anyone do any less? But I didn’t book travel to begin with.

  • Bill___A

    The probability of a pet issue is still less than the probability of “any reason”. Glad to see they have that option in the UK….people would buy that level of cover, I think there is a market for it.

  • polexia_rogue

    there was an article here about a boyfriend/girlfriend couple where the girlfriend’s parent died, but that was not a valid enough reason for the boyfriend to get a refund (since not married means not “family”).
    I think it would be a tough hill to climb to get an airline to refund to a pet “family emergency.”

  • Éamon deValera

    I’d stay home if my pets were sick. I’d also consider the cost/benefit ratio of refundable tickets v. non-refundable. If it was a low non-refundable fare I might just toss it if I couldn’t go because my pets were very ill.

    This is a situation where the beneficence of AA can be implored. Certainly they don’t have to do anything other than that which they are required, but perhaps a well written letter to the Customer Service department may reach a dog lover (I’d certainly include a picture of the dog). Good will is often more valuable to a company than the few dollars they would made in change fees or even the entire unused ticket.

    In fact while not a fan of AA, and in fact they are on the bottom of my list of airlines on which to be booked, if we hear that AA gave her full credit for her unusable ticket I’d be inclined to move them up in my list again. I’d certainly put them above Spirit.

  • An Even Newer Alan Gore

    Her best bet to try for credit, not a refund. She will pay a huge fee to reschedule, so even that probably won’t be worth it. Next time, book Southwest.

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