Her condition isn’t covered — should we push for a refund?

By | May 21st, 2016

Here’s a new twist on all the nonrefundable airline ticket cases we see on this site. It involves a responsible consumer, an uninsurable condition and a company that almost always sticks to the rules.

I’d love to know how you would try to fix this one.

Julie Montgomery wrote to us recently to ask for help retrieving her nonrefundable airfare from American Airlines. But this is no ordinary case.

“I deal with chronic depression,” she says, “Sometimes in a major down moment I go on a spending craze.”

That’s what happened recently when she booked a surfing trip to the Dominican Republic in mid-August. The $1,245 airfare was, of course, totally nonrefundable.

“I’m now working with a financial advisor who is helping me get out of thousands of dollars of debt,” she says. “I’m able to get a refund from the tour company for the surfing part but am not sure where to start to get the airline ticket refunded.”

Probably because it’s a non-starter. (Did I just hear a voice from the peanut gallery saying, “That’s because her ticket is nonrefundable. What part of nonrefundable don’t you understand?”)

Anyway, here are Montgomery’s choices when she booked the trip:

    • Pay for a fairly reasonably but restricted airline ticket and take your chance that something might derail the trip. The risk? She could lose $1,245.
    • Buy a much more expensive refundable ticket. But those fares are double, triple and sometimes even more, and aimed at business travelers with expense accounts. No reasonable tourist books them, and the airlines know it.
    • Purchase travel insurance. But hang on. Mental illnesses are not covered events, so the only policy that would have worked a pricey “cancel for any reason” policy, which costs 10 percent of the value of your trip or more.
Related story:   British Airways forced us to pay twice to return from our honeymoon

So you see, Montgomery didn’t have a true choice that someone would have in a competitive industry. She had to pick between a bad option and a worse option for her airfares, and a worse option and no option at all for travel insurance.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Cry me a river. It was a surfing vacation. Boo hoo! But it just as easily could have been a funeral, an important business meeting or a job interview. The purpose of the trip isn’t as important as the principle here.

What would you do in this situation? I’ve already asked Montgomery for the paper trail between her and American. But would you push for a refund? Or let this be an expensive lesson learned, a talking point in her next debt counseling session?

I love competition and a free and fair marketplace, but as I look at the Montgomery case, I see de facto monopolies — a handful of airlines and insurance underwriters who do pretty much whatever they want with us. How can that be right?

Should I advocate for Julie Montgomery?

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  • flyonpa

    If she put the AA trip on her credit card, It would be handles by her financial advisory as part of the pay off and/or Bankruptcy she is going to do. AA is not involved. Since she knows she has this problem, when she is in a UP mood she would have set herself up with a Limited dollar credit card or just a debit card with limited money on it, So once she is out of money her Down mood spending stops, Where a family/friend add money to the debit card from another account she does not have direct access to,

  • Barthel

    The customer should get a letter from her doctor saying her health would preclude her from flying.

  • AJPeabody

    She says her medical condition caused irrational behavior. Asking an irrational person to consider the limitations of an airfare and of travel insurance and then rationally decide to insure against irrationality with cancel for any reason insurance is, well, irrational. So she’s caught in the fine print with no easy exit.

    I have great sympathy for the difficulties of those who suffer mental illness. It is only very recently that medical insurance in the US was required to cover mental illness with parity vs other illnesses. It is time that other insurances, including travel insurance, be required to do the same.

  • AAGK

    If she was on a spending spree, why not spend more money for the refundable ticket. Also, if credit card debt is a mental illness, 95% of the population is afflicted.

  • Travelnut

    One of the requirements of entering into a contract is that each party has sufficient mental capacity to understand what they are agreeing to. The poster should have grounds to void the contract and get a refund, but she may need to get a lawyer and present proof of her mental state at the time of the purchase. And I do hope she has a trusted family member or friend to help her in the future.

  • AAGK

    She isn’t precluded from flying medically. I don’t think airlines accept notes from financial advisors.

  • AAGK

    Caveat to my no vote- if she supplies you with medical documentation of ongoing treatment and a diagnosis from a psychiatrist, that she has manic depression, etc. and couldn’t be expected to understand the ticket purchase bc she was in a manic state of psychosis or whatever. Then advocate.

  • Barthel

    I said from her medical doctor. I’m sure he would be smart enough to write it so that he could state that she would suffer a medical emergency if she flew.

  • MarkKelling

    But she has no condition that would actually prevent her from flying. I don’t know any doctor out there that would lie like this. Maybe they exist, but I am happy to say I don’t know any.

  • MarkKelling

    First off, is the OP actively undergoing medical treatment for depression or has the OP received treatment for depression in the past and is under continuing monitoring for the condition? Simply claiming you have depression which causes you to spend uncontrollably is not a medical diagnosis and would not be admissible in court if this ended up there. Most people who have this condition call it buyer’s remorse when we buy something and then realize we don’t really need it and really can’t afford it. Working with a financial advisor to pay off previous spending sprees is great, but if this really is a medical problem then medical help is what is truly needed.

    The problem the OP is facing has nothing to do with the type of airfares available, the type of travel insurance available, or any of those other things pointed out in the article as being brought on by lack of competition in the air travel industry. Yes, all of those are problems in general (and really need to be addressed) but none make this case different than any other where someone purchases non refundable airfare and then decide not to go when they realize they can’t afford it.

    The best thing the OP can do is shred all of her credit cards and debit cards, except one for emergencies which is given to a trusted friend or family member who will not let her use it unless it is a true emergency. Pay for everything in cash: no cash = no purchase = no problem. Worked for a close friend of mine who thanks me to this day for helping her through the situation she was in.

  • mbods2002

    Interesting…A responsible consumer? I don’t know about that, maybe at times. Is her “chronic depression” being treated by a doctor? The piece implies that, I mean who would say they have chronic depression and not be in the process of being treated, but we really don’t know for sure. The answer to that question would dictates the outcome and I agree with some of the others, she would probably need a lawyer to get her money back. Sure hope she gets the help she needs because if she IS getting medical help, it’s not working.

  • Sue

    I agree with everything you have said. If she is really is working with a financial advisor the first thing they would have her do is cancel all of her credit cards. It’s a long hard road to get out of debt for anyone not just those with depression. Usually it has taken years to get into thousands of dollars of debt and will take years to get out.

  • Jeff W.

    If you have nothing better to do and have the time, then help. If you can only pick a few cases, I am sure there are more worthy cases for you to choose from. Because the purpose of the trip IS important.

    Very sympathetic to someone with her condition. The reality of the situation is that she is in severe debt because of her illness and/or shopping tastes. It does not sound like this is the first major purchase in which she has spent money,

    Her financial situation is probably as such where bankruptcy is just around the corner, in which case the debt will be dismissed anyway. Let the financial advisor handle this case.

  • judyserienagy

    Cancel for any Reason insurance would have been a little over $100. What a terrible story, my heart goes out to her. I hope she can document her condition and that you will go to bat for an AA credit towards a future flight. I hope she is able to get some mental and financial help and set up some future parameters.

  • jmj

    I love competition and a free and fair marketplace, but as I look at the Montgomery case, I see de facto monopolies — a handful of airlines and insurance underwriters who do pretty much whatever they want with us. How can that be right?

    I’m not sure I see a de facto monopoly. I see options. If the “cancel for any reason” insurance costs 10% of the trip, that’s only $125. To me, the risk of losing 125 is a whole lot better than the risk of losing 1250.

  • polexia_rogue

    No disrespect for people with chronic depression but if an airline gives a refund for ‘mental health issue’ what’s to stop people who are shopping addicts or drunk from asking for a refund.

    she has no chance.

  • Jeff W.

    “I see de facto monopolies”

    You didn’t say where she was was flying from, but given the fact that she was flying into the DR opens up several additional international airline choices. Aeromexico, LATAM, and Copa come quickly to mind. Of course, these might not be the most convenient choices, but choices they are.

    Almost all of the US based airlines fly into the DR from one or two of their hubs at best. But they all fly there, so there are choices.

  • KanExplore

    The difference would be if a medical doctor certified her as unable to travel due to the depression. But that seems a long shot. She’s able to travel, just behaved inappropriately in her circumstances, apparently due to her illness.

    The airlines simply don’t have a department for, “Let’s believe everyone’s stories and give refunds to non-refundable fares if they come up with one.” There’s no cost involved for a consumer advocate to simply take every story at its word, but if airlines did that they’d soon be overwhelmed with people wanting exceptions, not that they don’t already receive appeals for exceptions thousands of times a day.

  • Blamona

    Okay, my mom has suffered depression all of her life. While I feel for her, I think she has 2 options, go on vacation or consider it a hard lesson learned.

    Under these circumstances, dr or financial advisors should limit her credit so she can’t continue.

  • joycexyz

    I absolutely agree! She shouldn’t have access to credit cards. She knows she has a problem.

  • cscasi

    Checked my travel insurance company for a trip cost of $1250, cancel any reason, and the price was only $88. As mentioned, it only covers 75%. But, I agree that getting 75% back is better than having to eat the whole ticket. With that, she could even put in for cancel due to illness, got a certification from her doctor that he/she recommends that she not fly/travel because of the “illness”. Then, it is up to the insurance company to decide whether or not it is covered under covered sickness. I am not certain if it would be covered or not.
    Also, as mentioned by others, it might be best if she had someone to control her finances and just giver her a credit card with a low limit so she cannot run up huge charges when she is having an episode. Also, her account can be annotated so that she will not be allowed to go over her limit unless approved by the person who has control over her financial affairs (if she appoints one with a limited power of attorney for her financial affairs)

  • cscasi

    If she had to hire a lawyer, it might cost more than the value of the ticket; depending on the amount of time the lawyer had to spend and if he/she had to appear in court with her.

  • pauletteb

    That would be totally unethical!

  • Éamon deValera

    Think of the people with therapy animals (which are not service animals) some guy needs to travel with a chicken to calm him. If they gave refunds for every mental illness they’d be broke in a day.

  • Lindabator

    which is precisely why they do not ACCEPT such letters

  • DChamp56

    Wow, someone in that position (that knows it) should have a low capped credit card for something like this.

  • Tricia K

    It may be hard to believe, but I had something similar happen. Two years ago, recovering from major surgery and liver failure (the liver issues alone make it hard to think straight and then add the pain meds and you have difficulty thinking straight). To entertain myself, I was looking at all the wonderful destinations that Groupon offers to stoke the wanderlust. I can’t remember all the details about the trip (much of that time is a blur) but it was in he Mediterranean and at least $2800. I clicked on what I thought was the “view deal” button, but somehow managed to buy it (which is usually a two stage process with them and I don’t remember that part of it). I got an email from groupon congratulating me on my purchase -/and I went into to full-blown panic mode. Groupon has a three day time frame under which you can ask for a refund (in most cases), but they were closed for the weekend to let their employers celebrate the 4th of July. I sent multiple emails and left a few voicemails explaining what happened and once they were back to work, they quickly refunded my money and were quite nice about it. And yes, it would seem someone capable of trying to undo this mistake was capable of not making the mistake in the first place, but the memory lapses and brain fog kind of had an ebb and flow. My husband helped me make a few adjustments to the account and a few others so we wouldn’t have a repeat. If the OP has a history
    of this behavior, she needs to put some safeguards in place. Credit cards frozen in a block of ice can certainly buy enough time to re-think the situation.

  • She needs serious medication and a doctor’s recommendation for her condition.

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