They were evacuated from Virgin Gorda. Does Air Sunshine owe them a refund?

Hurricane Irma interrupted Denise Johnson’s vacation to Virgin Gorda. She didn’t use the return portion of her Air Sunshine ticket and requested a refund. But the airline only offers flight credit and ignores further appeals.

Question

We flew to Virgin Gorda on Aug. 26, 2017, for vacation and were on Virgin Gorda when Hurricane Irma hit on September 6. Due to the damage and devastation, the airports closed. Air Sunshine, of course, canceled our flight.  We were unable to contact Air Sunshine after the hurricane because there were no means of communication on the island. Eventually a helicopter airlifted us off the island to San Juan on Sep. 10.

After power was restored to our home, we contacted Air Sunshine on Sep. 18, and the company stated that it would be issuing refunds in early Oct. After I received no refund, I contacted them again via phone on Nov. 1.

The representative from Air Sunshine then told me that they were only issuing credits to be used within two years. As per their terms of contract all flights are nonrefundable. I started to create a paper trail and sent an email request for a refund on Nov. 3.

No response

After I received no response, I emailed a second request on Nov. 15, and again there was no response. Air Sunshine did not send one email or text before Irma, following Irma, or in response to my emails. I did receive an email with the flight credit good for two years after contacting them via phone again and requesting that promise in writing.

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I would like a $350 refund for our return flight tickets. We understand their terms of contract state no refunds, but we believe that the unique circumstances warrant consideration and a refund. We did not violate the terms of the contract, but rather Category 5 Hurricane Irma caused major damage, and Air Sunshine did not/was not able to provide service from the island for our return flight. These are all items out of our control. — Denise Johnson, Boca Raton, Fla.

Answer

First and foremost, I’m glad you returned home safely after Hurricane Irma.

I certainly understand that it took several days after the hurricane for you to contact Air Sunshine. Conditions on the island likely delayed Air Sunshine’s initial response, but its continued refusal to respond leads me to believe that this is standard company practice.

The contract of carriage of Air Sunshine

You are correct that the airline’s contract of carriage defines your ticket as nonrefundable. Unlike other airlines, Air Sunshine’s contract of carriage does not appear on its website. Passenger notices online state:

Tickets become Non refundable, Non Changeable and Non Transferable within 48 hours of departure; however in instances of a major weather phenomenon affecting the region of travel, we will consider waiving or reducing the applicable service charges on a case by case basis.

We highly recommend that you cancel your reservations as no shows are absolutely Non Changeable. We are always willing to work with you for whatever reasons you may have in regards to the cancellation of your travel itinerary; however allowing us to resell your reserved seat to someone else in need of that seat is the first step and requirement that must be fulfilled in considering reduction of applicable service charges. We don’t overbook and empty seats mean loss of revenue; therefore your understanding and cooperation is greatly appreciated.

Trying to contact Air Sunshine

We do not list contacts for Air Sunshine on our website, but after you contacted our advocacy team, our advocate, Dwayne Coward reached out to Air Sunshine on your behalf. The airline ignored him, just as it had ignored you. So you contacted the Department of Transportation (DOT), and the airline took the full time allowed by the DOT to respond to the complaint. But when it did, you learned that your version of events was different from Air Sunshine’s.

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Air Sunshine claimed you never contacted them before or immediately after the hurricane. It stated that your first contact was in November and that it could have arranged for your flight off the island if you had called. Yet you state that you did contact the airline, and it told you there were no flights available.

No refund

The airline also denies that anyone told you that it would issue you a refund. The passenger notice above includes the possibility that the airline would waive fees in the event of a “major weather phenomenon,” but not that it would issue full refunds.

Now here is what I find interesting: In DOT’s initial notification of your complaint, it clearly states that if the airline previously received notification of the complaint, the 60-day clock starts ticking on the date that you the initially filed the complaint. Since the company acknowledges your written complaint sent to it on November 3, it should have responded by by January 3 The company responded on February 27. It seems that this violates DOT policy.

The final word

Air Sunshine ultimately refused to refund the cost of your return ticket. It appears to put the blame on you for supposedly not contacting the company before the hurricane. It claims that “most of the passengers” did. But it stood by its offer to allow you two years to use your $350 credit. It also claims it will waive fees to rebook your tickets. Since the company refused to acknowledge the contacts by Coward and waited for the DOT to remind it that it needed to respond, I’m afraid the credit offer remains the final offer.

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Michelle Bell

Michelle worked in the travel and hospitality industry for almost two decades. Born in Germany, she has lived in 15 states and two foreign countries, and traveled to more than 35 countries. After living and working in Southeast Asia for several years, she now resides in New Orleans. Read more of Michelle Bell's articles here.

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