Raw fury after being shortchanged on a refund

Bobbi Ziegler’s case makes me angry.

Angry at the airline industry for the way it prices tickets.

Angry at the airline insiders, who continue to defend these indefensible practices.

Angry at the airline apologists, who think a compassionate gesture would “raise ticket prices” for the rest of us.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Here’s what happened to Ziegler: A few months ago, she flew from Montreal to West Palm Beach, Fla., on a restricted economy class ticket. Ziegler works as a receptionist in a doctor’s office, so that’s all she could afford.

“While I was visiting my mother she suffered a devastating stroke,” she says. “I notified the airline that I could not take the flight but instead was sitting by her bedside.”

Sadly, Ziegler’s mother passed away.

United charged her a $841 walk-up fare to fly back to Montreal. When she showed the airline a death certificate, they refunded the $150 change fee.

“They said there’s nothing else they can do,” she says.

Actually, there is so much more United can do.

I can already hear some of you saying:

    • “That’s how the system works. If you don’t like it, drive.”
    • “We tried offering bereavement fares, but customers abused them. I wonder how many more times Ziegler’s mother is going to ‘die?'”
    • “Refunding the change fee was more than generous. She didn’t even deserve that.”

Go on, I’m waiting for your comments.

Well, we all know that airline tickets are perishable and priced hyper-dynamically, which is to say, they change by the second, based on consumer demand. The system mistook Ziegler, a grieving daughter who was just trying to get home, for a fat cat business traveler on an expense account.

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That doesn’t make it right. Or fair.

We also know that tens of thousands of passengers have abused bereavement fares in the past. Does that mean we should end these compassionate fare options? It’s easy for you to sit in your comfortable chair and say “yes” — until a loved one dies and you have to fly somewhere last-minute for a funeral.

And to those of you who say that offering to change Ziegler’s ticket at no charge, as a compassionate gesture, would raise prices, I’d like to know where you studied economics. Fact is, the “raising prices” argument is an old chestnut used by deregulation fanatics, with virtually no basis in reality.

A popular offshoot: “I don’t want to subsidize Ziegler’s low fare.”

Shame on you for even thinking that.

Shame. On. You.

Have we taken the humanity out of air travel and handed the pricing to the machines and policies? I’ve been talking with United Airlines about cases like this, and it tells me that it wants to do better.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually encouraged it to do the right thing for customers like Ziegler? Wouldn’t it be nice if the free marketers and the apologists just shut up for a change and allowed an airline to do something decent?

Should I advocate Bobbi Ziegler's case?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Randy Culpepper

    Less hyperbole, more facts, please. Did she lose 100% of her initial return fare? How much was ultimately applied to the return trip? Why did she buy a walk-up fare? Did she really not know until the day of travel that she would be flying?

  • Grant Ritchie

    Thanks, Laura. I can’t either. I alerted Chris.

  • Bill___A

    So what should they have done?

  • Jo Kendray

    Airlines have the ability to change tickets for customers when things go wrong for them – overbooking, delays, weather etc, so it makes no sense that they slam their feet down to say no when it doesn’t suit them. I understand they are a profit driven business, but do feel that too many businesses are driven solely for profit, and totally forgetting about their reasons for profit in the first place – the customer ( All the while saying how important their customers are to them!). You catch way more flies with honey- if they put the compassion back into their business decisions, there would be a lot less anger in the skies. Saying no is a habit that far too many companies are accustomed to – bring back the ‘Yes we can’ for the customers, and watch the impact it has on the long term profits and customer retention. Be her champion!

  • Rebecca

    It has nothing to do with ineptness. It has to do with overhead cost and liability. In order to actually make exceptions, and figure out who “deserves” them, you’re talking about paying people to verify information. You’re also talking about having a clear cut policy about those exceptions. Because you have to draw the line somewhere, and where is that?

    I’m not saying I don’t have any compassion in cases like this, of course I do. But I’ve also seen this from the other side. I was the supervisor that made exceptions. And I can tell you that WAY more people than you think (or maybe not) will say just about anything if they can get even $20 out of it. So it becomes a matter of fact checking when it’s a case like this. Would I have made an exception in this case? Probably. Especially if the OP was offering up the death certificate. But remember you have to actually have someone verify that, and pay the person with override capacity to hear the facts, verify it, and either write or speak to the customer. That costs money.

    On top of that, you can’t just let first level (or really second and probably third level) customer service reps make those types of override decisions. Because that’s a system absolutely ripe for abuse. You’d have people refunding their friends and family, giving things away, I’m imagining the nightmare fraud scenarios right now. Let alone the failed audits. And the liability the company would incur because this would violate federal regulations. You can’t just let a customer service person push a button and send a refund because they feel bad for a customer. Especially companies with shareholders. You would go bankrupt, if the feds didn’t shut you down first.

    I am not an apologist. I honestly feel awful for people like the OP. I just don’t think it’s physically possible to make it simple for people in situations like hers to have an easy remedy. So many people have taken advantage, and so many employees would take advantage of a system set up to help, it’s just an unfortunate situation with no easy answer.

  • VoR61

    I still believe that the value of compassion can never be overstated or underestimated.

    And I will go one step further, that if they had an open first class seat, she should have been given that. Happened to me once when my daughter’s cancer relapsed while on a Make-A-Wish trip. Coincidentally it was United that put us in the front row …

  • KanExplore

    Randy, the blog post is mainly a diatribe against people who disagree with him, rather than the airline’s policies. With a change fee (and here it was waived) you usually you can reschedule a flight within a one-year window of when it was booked, or use the credit toward another flight on the airline. I find it hard to believe there was no way to get from West Palm Beach to Montreal for under $841. It’s $317 on Air Canada flying tomorrow. But we don’t know the facts because they weren’t provided.

    Airlines simply don’t have a way to know who is telling the truth and who is lying in these cases. I know, CE’s wrath will come down on me again for being an “apologist.”

  • Greg Paul

    A quick question for those in the “a compassionate gesture will raise prices” camp…HOW WOULD YOU KNOW? With, as Chris points out, ticket prices on the same seat type, same fare class, same route, same day, being offered at wildly differently prices based on proprietary yield management algorithms. This is an impossible assertion to prove or disprove, unless the airline in question opens up the code for inspection. And, no, “it’s just common sense they would rise” or “I just feel that way” answers won’t cut it here.

  • Greg Paul

    JO – I literally could not agree with you more on this point. WHY make these iron-clad, one-sided and self-serving policies based on some illusory “fairness” when all you do is grow the “a pox on all their houses” group of p’d off travelers who are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. BRAVO!

  • That was my question too. By paying a change fee, wasn’t she able to reschedule the return? Judging from the story, this would have been well within the one-year window for doing this.

  • Flywisely
  • fairmont1955

    Speaking from personal experience – when I had to fly to another state because of a family medical emergency, there were enough variables going on that I had little lead time to know when I was going to be returning home. So, yes, it is possible. I get you want more facts, but careful with using them to pass judgement.

  • Beverly Walker

    “and pay the person with override capacity to hear the facts, verify it, and either write or speak to the customer.” Doesn’t that person already work there and isn’t the airline already paying them to do their job? How is that a hardship for the airline?

  • MarkKelling

    What federal regulations would be violated by giving a refund?

    If you would have people refunding friends and family on a whim, then you hired the wrong people for those positions because they are doing the same thing today even with the restrictions that are in place.

    Why can’t you “just let a customer service person push a button”? If intelligent enough people are hired into the customer service positions, they are trained properly, and they know there are consequences for improper button pushing, there is no reason a company can’t have that level of ability assigned to front line customer service agents.

    Most of the “no refunds, no exceptions” polices were implemented when airlines were losing billions a year because of high gas prices, inefficient routes, and idiotic management. It takes a lot for a company a large as an airline to change practices. So now even though they makes billions in profits, there has been no loosening of policies in the favor of customers because they are still too scared they will go bankrupt again.

  • fairmont1955

    Because he’s staying focused? There’s no shortage of industries that can be pointed to.

  • MarkKelling

    Airlines reschedule, cancel, and otherwise manipulate flights all the time when it fits their needs. You end up on a flight that might get you where you are going just not at a convenient time for you. At least they don’t charge the passengers for that. But, unless you are flying on a full-fare fully refundable ticket, the slightest change you want will most likely cost you more than the entire round trip ticket did.

    I think airlines should take another look at how changes impact them financially. Sure, charging $250 plus a higher ticket price to move your flight from Tuesday to Wednesday is profitable to them, but why is this needed? While I understand the fear airlines have that it would turn into a game of musical chairs if this was allowed without fees, why does Southwest allow it with seemingly no financial impact to them? Especially when the passenger is changing a flight due to a family emergency this is just a slap in the face. Is there a possibility for abuse of flexible flight changes? Sure, there is a possibility to abuse any airline policy in your favor.

  • Pharma is another industry that, having cadged monopoly powers from the government, can raise prices at will because, and only because, it is illegal to compete with them.

  • IGoEverywhere

    So tell me, what can we do? I’ll never fly you again sure works well! As soon as the airline has the lowest fare “well, let’s give them another chance”. They just raised fares $6.00 average per flight last week. Why? I want the airlines to give me back the bereavement fares; I always made sure that my customers needed them then got the fare. A great piece of advice for this situation. Allegheny General in Pittsburgh has a concierge that assists family. They call the airlines and beg rather than the traveler. I know in my personal family case, they worked miracles. I could hope that most hospitals have a desk to assist family. The airlines in general just suck!


    I have felt the wrath too. Not sure if it is because I am considered an apologist or because i complain about who is allowed to be snarky and who is not.

  • NotThatBrooklynGuy

    Definitely not enough data here.
    How much was the original fare is the minimum that needs to be added so we can get a fell for how bad the one way return trip for $841 was.

  • jim6555

    Unless a pharma company raises prices by 5000% on a life-saving drug overnight. Doing that can make a CEO the Most Hated Man in America and result in the government taking a close look at the CEO’s other business activities.

  • Price-gouging is perfectly legal, though. It was the attention focused on Shkreli that caused his earlier shenanigans to be looked into more closely, and that was the reason for the indictment.

  • Nathan Witt

    You are absolutely correct, but what you say is only true under the current rules. If there were no rule requiring ridiculous fees and last-minute walkup fares for any change at all, a first-level customer service agent *could* just push a button and change the ticket. And, yes, it does cost something to have the adequate staff in place to make changes. But I bet it’s less than $150 change fee + $841 walkup fare. Instituting rules that cover the airlines’ cost, subject ticket-changers to flying standby, etc. could probably be instituted, and it looks like the only reason they haven’t been is because the airlines want another revenue stream.

  • Mel65

    When my FIL passed away unexpectedly, in Hawaii, several years ago, I called to purchase 5 tickets for us with 2 days notice for the funeral. When I asked about bereavement fares, the agent snorted and commented, “He died in Hawaii, in December; how convenient.” I was stung by how cynical and rude he was just because my husband’s home happens to be a vacation spot. I realize they’ve seen a lot of abuse, but being on the receiving end of that cynicism was infuriating.

  • sirwired

    I don’t think there’s anything “shameful” in saying simply that “Businesses like their money just as much as consumers like theirs.” Emptying a seat very late (and filling another seat) has a very high potential cost to the airline, no matter the passenger’s motivation for making that change. The airline deciding that they don’t want to bear that cost is not an unreasonable thing to do.

  • MarkKelling

    No one was asking for a refund here.

    The person’s travel dates changed. All that was wanted was to be able to change the flight without getting screwed on the price. And death certificates cost US$25 where I am.

    It is true that the story was written where a lot of detail was left out, probably in an attempt to draw support.

  • Ceenite

    Of course it’s United, and you all realize if the airline has a mechanical or even weather cancellation and it then rebooks ALL the flights’ passengers on other days and flights and CHARGES them nothing right? Airline tickets are all electronic, take mere minutes and a few keystrokes to reissue. United agents are ruthless in enforcing the “rules” because the airline tracks their keystrokes so they can be audited by the company. Waiving the change fee is an easy way out and they get to “appear” helpful. They already had this woman’s money so the shareholders were losing nothing!

  • Altosk

    Here’s an idea–airlines charge a set price for tickets, not these fares that change whenever someone farts.

    Oh, right. We had that. It was called “regulation” and no one liked it.

  • LostInMidwest

    Tough crowd here …

    The post explaining how overhead costs and liability make it impossible to be treated like a human being gets 10 upvotes, the other one saying that it is about Chris ranting against people rather than about airline policies gets 7 upvotes.

    Hey! Wait a damn minute! Who messed up my links on my Favorites bar!!! Why am I on AmericanDeltaUnited4ever.com page instead of consumer advocacy site! Not cool, kids!

  • LonnieC

    It seems that currently the major airlines are making huge profits. Even if all of the problems and related costs you mention are true, they would seem to represent a very small fraction of those profits. There has to be room for some level of humanity in cases such as this. And the fact that United agreed that “it has to do better” would seem to support this. It simply can’t only be all about profit.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    That is so unseemly that it seems like a time to ask for a supervisor, with the call hopefully being recorded. While I understand agents have difficult jobs, 1465 people died in Hawaii in 2014 (see http://health.hawaii.gov/vitalstatistics/preliminary-2014/), including 150 in December.

  • Rebecca

    If one person can push a button to send a refund, give something away, etc, you’re failing an audit. I meant banking and SOX compliance, not airline regulations. I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear. You simply can’t give front line customer service people that ability.

  • bayareascott

    The airlines don’t want to pay enough for the most part to hire intelligent enough people into those positions, nor do they spend money on training. Airlines ideally want front level positions to be part time or first jobs out of college that people take for a few years and then move on. Airlines simply don’t value the positions enough. If you have quality people there, it is more by chance than anything the airlines are prioritizing.

  • MarkKelling

    I worked for a bank. Every teller had refund ability up to certain limits for fees and service charges. Phone service people had the same ability. Managers were involved when the refund exceeded those limits. No audit issues with that.

    If the company has rules in place restricting who can do refunds then yes this would be an audit issue because you are allowing your employees to ignore a procedure. Nothing preventing the company from changing its policies procedures and rules.

  • bayareascott

    Everyone wants to point to airline profits. No one ever balances the hundreds of millions in losses just a few years back. Cases should simply be judged on individual merits.

  • bayareascott

    Just give everyone with a bad person situation a first class seat? Sure! Seriously, when do you see flights with open first class seats these days? Just not happening.

  • bayareascott

    Southwest does not just allow changes. They charge you the full fare difference. If you are changing from Tuesday to Wednesday at the last minute on Southwest, and you had an advance-purchase fare, the difference can well be more than a $200 change fee. This is one of the most common misconceptions about Southwest.

    My opinion is that change fees should be on a sliding scale depending on how far in advance you want to make the change.

    People also go overboard about paying change fees. Most of the time, you can pay a change fee and not have to pay any fare difference. If you bought an inexpensive ticket, agreeing to no changes and non-refundable, and then make a change for $200 because something came up, you are still usually paying considerably less money than if you bought a changeable fare in the first place.

  • bayareascott

    So the airline tracks the agent’s keystrokes, but then they aren’t paying attention when they waive fees? You are kidding, right?

  • Ceenite

    nope, he waives the change fee and collects the fare difference, 800 plus in this case..probably got a “good job” from the supe..

  • KanExplore

    Agreed, that was totally uncalled for. I’d report that agent to supervisors.

  • KanExplore

    You’re right. The headline could have something to do with why some might think the case has to do with a refund.

  • MarkKelling

    All true. But when you make a similar change on other airlines you pay that fare difference PLUS the change fee. Southwest at least saves you the change fee and you can still find a flight that is equal to or even less than the one you had if you are changing a flight far enough out.

  • Rebecca

    I was saying that giving front line customer service reps the ability to process refunds, change a fare to zero, etc, would make you fail an audit. There has to be a paper trail for something like this. Assuming airline tickets are hundreds of dollars each, let’s say an average of $500ish, you are saying to give all of the reps the ability to just refund that or give it away? Surely we can at least agree that a supervisor should be required to override a $500 refund/price change. I worked at a bank too. I’m 100% sure that any teller that made a $500 adjustment to anything required an override. That was what I was trying to say. That you can’t just have that authority running around.

    Ideally, everyone would be honest. Unfortunately, they aren’t. Cases like the OP’s are actually relatively rare. IF customers always told the truth and IF customers only escalated cases like these to a high level supervisor, it would be an easy fix. Simply publish that supervisors email/phone and it could be taken care of quickly. But that would never work. Because people would abuse it. Similarly, you can’t just have any person answering the phone process this, because those same dishonest customers might just be an employee.

  • bayareascott

    That’s not entirely accurate.

    On the legacies, you pay the change fee and MAY pay a fare difference, but you also may not. If your fare category is available, you only have to pay the fee and nothing else. That is frequently the case.

    Far enough out, fine. But most people are trying to make changes at the last minute, more or less.

  • Jenny Zopa

    All they really have to do is waive the change fee and let her stand by until there is an empty seat available. It costs the airline nothing.

  • bayareascott

    It’s not clear from the post WHO refunded the fee. And it wasn’t waived. Although the post really doesn’t make sense from that perspective anyway. If the OP was buying a walk-up fare, why pay a change fee in addition? It’s just a new ticket.

  • MarieTD

    I was able to comprehend the part where the writer said “IF they had an open first class seat.”

  • Lee

    Yes, I so much agree, do see what you can do for her. Besides the terrible loss of her mother, having to go into debt for this sort of thing is absurd given their profits, etc. The airlines make it up – even with all the whining they do.

    A number of years ago when I had to leave immediately from NYC to L.A. because of an emergency with my mother, I did get a bereavement fare but first had to provide the hospital info and they actually spoke to the hospital person to confirm my mother was there. No gaming of the system.

    I saved about 50% of the fare. I had been using JetBlue since literally their first week for that route, many times and only found out at that time I needed it, that they did not offer such a fare, but the other airline that I took did. Recently, I checked for someone in need about such a fare and could not find it offered by any airline. Is it completely gone? I presume so.

    Go get ’em Christopher!

  • Lee

    Yes, reporting that agent was more than warranted. When I am in the middle of a really impossible call with a terrible customer representative, I often just stop and ask “this call is being recording, right?” – so many times, attitudes have changed on a dime. But, someone responding this way to you is outrageous.

  • Mel65

    I do wish that at the time I thought of that. But I was so much more focused on “how do we get 5 people there without having to take out a 2nd mortgage on the house!” In hindsight it was so egregious; at the time I was just … stunned and hurt.

  • Joe Farrell

    “I’ve been talking with United Airlines about cases like this, and it tells me that it wants to do better.”

    So why don’t they? They control 100% of the transaction – they ‘could’ do better. They ‘could’ make an exception, they ‘could’ honor the fare originally purchased with only the change fee in these situations.

    They ‘could’ make changes in their rules, but they don’t. Why not? If they want to ‘do better’

  • Joe Farrell

    Back in the day, they did not hire a cast of thousands at tens of millions per. They simply refunded your money. End of problem.

    If someone wants to be like Manny Ramirez with three or four dead grandmothers as an excuse to get out of a legit contract they have – karma will sooner or later come calling. They aren’t going to lose money on dead grandmothers or mothers or whomever. . . .

  • Joe Farrell

    because they never used to have those people employed. They gave you your money back because it was a special kind of sicko who used the dead parent excuse to break the contract. Now adays, people have no shame.

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