“This has been a long, long ordeal”

By | March 20th, 2016

Wayne Brumett wanted to take his family on a Disney vacation, and he spared no expense. In May, he purchased six first-class round-trip tickets on American Airlines between Sacramento and Orlando, at a price of more than $9,700. He planned to travel with his wife, son, daughter-in-law and two grandkids.

But in October, Brumett’s daughter-in-law unexpectedly collapsed and was taken to the emergency room. After multiple tests, she was diagnosed with a severe seizure disorder.

And despite paying nearly $10,000, those tickets on American were non-refundable.

This case highlights how an airline should — and should not — handle truly special circumstances presented for consideration by customers. And it reminds us what customers — and all of us — can learn about preparing for the unforeseen.

“My daughter-in-law has regained some semblance of balance, and can walk short distances in her house with the assistance of a walker,” Brumett wrote to our advocacy team. “Unfortunately, her current doctors have told her that bright lights and movement in an uncontrolled environment would cause her to lose her balance and suffer migraine headaches or seizure. Her current neurologist has determined that she cannot pursue airline travel for the foreseeable future.”

Five days after his daughter-in-law’s collapse, Brumett canceled the tickets, and began writing to American Airlines to plead his case. He didn’t want to lose the value of his tickets, which he knew would expire a year from the date of purchase.

The problem is, he has no idea when his daughter-in-law will be able to travel. He included letters from her doctors, explaining the prognosis and the uncertainty about when she might be able to fly.

American responded to Brumett, saying:

After reviewing the documentation submitted, it has been determined the request does not meet our exception requirements. The tickets purchased are non-refundable so we cannot offer a refund, issue a travel voucher, or transfer the tickets to others. However, the ticket will remain valid in our system for one year from the original date of issue, at which time it will expire and all value will be lost. The unused non-refundable ticket may be applied to future travel as long as all travel is completed prior to the expiration date. The new ticket will be subject to a change fee based on the fare rules, in addition to any difference in fare or fees that may be in effect at the time of travel.

While airlines don’t have to make exceptions to non-refundable ticket policies for unforeseen medical circumstances, the customer was only requesting that the ticket value be extended beyond the original purchase date.

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Brumett wasn’t asking for his money back. In fact, he told us, “Our first wish is for her to heal, so we all can make the trip as originally planned, but that may take years.”

I’m already a believer that airlines need to be more lenient with customers regarding the expiration dates of vouchers. I’ve written about it before. And something about this mom suddenly stricken with an ailment that was leaving her unable to travel — and presumably unable to be a mom — prompted my decision to take this case to American.

Besides, American should want to keep a customer willing to spend $10,000 on the airline, right?

Brumett understood the gravity of the situation. He understood American’s policy, and wanted to figure out how to retain his credit. He first considered how to use the credit before the expiration date, knowing his son’s family couldn’t travel. So, he and his wife booked a new trip in order to apply a portion of the credit. But American didn’t waive the change fees as promised. Instead, it charged him $200 per ticket, as is customarily done for non-refundable tickets.

Brumett’s problems were getting worse. He now needed our help getting the change fee refunded, as well as help with the expiration date on the remaining vouchers. So, I wrote to our contact at American Airlines, who responded that it would refund the change fees and waive them for the remaining vouchers, but the expiration date of May 2016 would still apply.

I asked what the airline would do if, as predicted, Brumett’s daughter-in-law’s condition didn’t improve before the expiration of the vouchers. Our contact told us that Brumett should contact the airline again on the eve of the expiration date for further consideration.

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A dangerous approach, wouldn’t you say? On the eve of the vouchers’ expiration, Brumett would have almost no options, and would be entirely at the mercy of the airline. That solution didn’t leave Brumett — or us — feeling very optimistic about a successful resolution.

Then out of the blue, Brumett received a letter in the mail from American Airlines. It was an unsettling letter expressing the airline’s condolences for the death of Brumett’s daughter-in-law. This form letter typically accompanies the return of original death certificates and represents an uncomfortable, but all too common misstep by the behemoth airline in its handling of refund requests.

I saw this as an opportunity to again illustrate to the airline just how poorly it had been managing this customer’s case, and requested relief. “As you know, his daughter-in-law is disabled — not dead,” I wrote. “I understand if you are not able to offer a refund, but a clearly stated letter of what he can expect, with a tracking number so that customer service representatives will know what he is talking about when he reschedules, would be appropriate and appreciated.”

Three days later, Brumett received a phone call from American, which decided to issue a refund for the remaining four vouchers — valued at more than $6,500.

Brumett was elated and relieved at the outcome. “I firmly feel that without your help, and Mr. Elliott’s column, American would never have given us this refund. I can’t thank you enough! This has been a long, long ordeal, and I certainly learned a lesson – always get refundable tickets on big vacations.”

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Brumett then asked, “Should I have originally purchased refundable tickets or would purchasing travel insurance given me the option of a refund in my situation? With all the small print on these policies, it is hard to understand exactly what they will and will not do?”

Excellent question. Travel insurance policies are beset with all kinds of limitations and exclusions. For example, pre-existing medical conditions are often excluded from coverage on travel policies. So if Brumett had purchased the policy prior to the onset of his daughter-in-law’s medical condition, the cancellation would likely be covered. But now that she has a diagnosis, any event related to her condition that might result in a cancellation would not be covered. It is quite tricky, and refundable tickets are a better bet for some travelers, because they are typically less restrictive. It really comes down to weighing the risks and benefits of each, along with a close review of the terms and conditions of each.

Should American Airlines have refunded Brumett's tickets?

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  • Jesse O.

    This seems like a case of trying to “bite the hand that feeds you”. Giving someone that spends that kind of money at least a credit for future travel seems like something any reasonable business would do.

  • Nathan Witt

    $10,000 divided by 6 tickets = $1,600+ per ticket for domestic first class. I get that issuing flexible/refundable tickets costs the airline money, but how much can that cost really be, and why wouldn’t $1,600 cover it?

  • Travelnut

    Such a tough situation. Personally, I would have taken the trip with the grandkids. The kids would still get to go to Disney, the parents would get a break, and the grandparents would only have to negotiate $3200. But good on America for the refund.

  • One of the reasons people are willing to shell out for first class has always been flexibility. I’ve never heard of non-refundable FC before.

    So is this some attempted new frontier in screwing people over? Have other airlines tried this?

  • Altosk

    A non-refundable FC fare?!
    Wow. Talk about cold, AA.

    Glad this one worked out, but this case just illustrates how we need legislation to protect consumers from the airlines.
    (Not that we’ll ever get it because the airlines have pretty much bought Congress)

  • MarkKelling

    Yes, non-refundable 1st class is a thing.

    United does this. I was shocked after the merger when I bought a 1st class ticket and, while it was the same price as that ticket was when it was fully refundable on Continental, it was non-refundable on UA. It didn’t have a change fee then, but now the only difference is the seat you end up in and all the rules and regs are the same as on a coach ticket.

  • MarkKelling

    Yes, but I can get a 1st class ticket on United for sometimes less than coach since they went all non-refundable. You can still get a fully refundable 1st ticket, but it costs thousands more.

  • Tom McShane

    How much more, I wonder, would six refundable first class seats cost?

  • Annie M

    Wrong about any condition not being covered with insurance. There is a lookback period and if there were no seizures or major changes most policies cover pre-existing conditions. The other caveat is that the client must be medically able to travel when insurance is bought.

    Again another totally unnecessary case if client had bought travel insurance. When will people learn? Who spends $10,000 on a trip and doesn’t insure it?

  • flutiefan

    i’m confused… you chastise AA for “not waiving the change fees as promised. Instead, it charged him $200 per ticket.”
    But right in black and white is the warning that the change fee will apply, no promises of it being waived:
    “The new ticket will be subject to a change fee based on the fare rules, in addition to any difference in fare or fees that may be in effect at the time of travel.”


  • AAGK

    When I was a kid my grandparents took me to disneyworld and we had a blast! They have both passed away but I remember my grandpa on Space Mountain to this day. How odd the family wouldn’t allow the trip to proceed.

  • teddybeargraham

    cheaper at that point to just rent a small jet, like 30-40k would be my guess.

  • polexia_rogue

    since when are first class tickets non redundable?!

  • KarlaKatz

    I’ve been booking FC, non-refundable, for years; They exist.

  • KarlaKatz

    Since many, many years ago. FC is broken down into non-refundable, and refundable. I.e.: on AA, RT, CMH-PDX, FC non-refundable=$1,600; same itinerary, refundable=$3368. There’s a huge difference. The insurance is $120.

  • Charles Owen

    “But now that she has a diagnosis, any event related to her condition that might result in a cancellation would not be covered.” NO! Ever heard of a pre-existing condition waiver? NEVER, NEVER buy travel insurance without it! There are plenty of policies that have a pre-existing condition waivers available, provided you meet very simple conditions (buy within 10 days, for example). Someone with a known medical condition should darned well be buying travel insurance!

  • Bob Davis

    We just bought non-refundable first class for this year. Bought travel insurance to go with it. Based on past years looking at first class airline tickets they are now about half that price. I guess even charging a heavily reduced rates is better than giving them away ad FF miles.

  • Bob Davis

    Close. Probably at least double.

  • RBXChas

    I don’t think it’s odd at all. I can think of several reasons why the trip wouldn’t proceed without mom and dad. Maybe one or both grandparents are disabled and/or aren’t physically capable of having the grandkids 24/7. Maybe one of the kids has special needs that the grandparents aren’t able to take care of in the absence of mom or dad. Maybe one or more of the kids are young and not comfortable being away from mom and dad for a week, which might be exacerbated by mom’s illness, and I can see why dad didn’t want to leave his wife behind. Maybe the grandparents simply wanted to enjoy it with their son and daughter-in-law, as well as their grandchildren. Maybe the kids haven’t been to Disney before, and mom and dad both wanted to be there for their first visit. Personally, that last one is a biggie for me, and it would be almost literally insult to injury to miss out on that excitement if I were ill/injured and unable to go.

  • DChamp56

    I couldn’t answer the question as we don’t know if they cancelled 2 days or 2 months before the flights. If 2 days, no, if 2 months, yes. For me, it would have a lot to do with whether they could resell those first class seats.

  • Tom McShane

    Well, if the tickets are nonrefundable, I can’t reconcile that in my mind (poor thing that it is) with “going first class”. I suggest they call it something else, like, first class, once-removed.

  • Blamona

    I see refunding DIL ticket, but the rest should get credits

  • Lindabator

    No – its a better option for those who enjoy the class of service, but still enjoy saving moeny — and has been around for a long time.

  • Lindabator

    Why? I sell the UPfares all the time – and if you are paying full fare for coach, and getting nonrefundable first as a better option for the same rate, why not? Some people like the fact they can get an upgrade without having to pay so much more.

  • Lindabator

    yes, means the new ticket will have the cost of the old ticket applied minus the fee, and STILL will remain a nonrefundable ticket.

  • jim6555

    I never buy travel insurance through the travel provider. Insurance is less expensive and has fewer restrictions when purchased from a reputable on-line agency. One feature that some on-line sites provide is a waiver of pre-existing medical conditions if the policy is purchased within ten days of the travel booking date. Even though an existing condition has never been an issue for me, there is peace-of-mind in knowing that that a past illness cannot invalidate an insurance claim.

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