Is it too hard to get an airline ticket refund?

Question: I’m hoping you can help, because I’m stuck in limbo with my request for a refund on a $950 nonrefundable ticket to Maui on American Airlines.

I purchased the ticket for my mother. A few months later, she fell and broke her hip. She passed away about a month later.

After reading several of your articles regarding refunds for nonrefundable tickets, and noting you included death as one of two usual exceptions, I decided to contact American Airlines.

I submitted three online refund requests to American. It did not respond.

Finally, I contacted customer relations by phone and received instructions on how to cancel her ticket and submit a death certificate. A week later, I received an e-mail addressed “To Whom It May Concern” requesting a written explanation of the cancellation, along with a copy of the death certificate.

What kind of written explanation is needed regarding death?

American Airlines has sent us several more form letters, but so far hasn’t refunded the tickets. We even tried to leave a message on its Facebook account, but it hasn’t responded. I hope you can help. — John King, Carlisle, Iowa

Answer: My condolences on your loss. When your mother passed away, American Airlines should have refunded her ticket after you sent it her death certificate. I’ve never heard of an airline requiring an explanation for a passenger’s death. It seems redundant, since the death certificate would have noted her cause of death.

Airlines routinely refund nonrefundable tickets when a passenger dies. It is, as I’ve noted, one of the few reasons for a refund (the others being a flight cancellation, a significant schedule change or a documented change in military orders). And while it’s not unusual for the company to request a death certificate once, it’s uncommon to receive numerous form letters, which just stall the refund process and appear to be intended to make you give up.

Related story:   On travel brochures, the small print makes a big difference

When an airline gives you the runaround, it’s time to begin forwarding your correspondence to someone higher up the corporate food chain. I list the names and addresses of managers who can help on my customer service wiki. That probably would have done the trick.

I’m disappointed with the way American handled your request. At a time like this, the airline should have been compassionate about your loss and done its best to minimize the paperwork necessary to secure a quick refund.

I contacted American on your behalf. It apologized and issued a full refund for your mother’s ticket.

survey hosting

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 Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • bodega3

    This was certainly not handled well by American Airlines and I am glad Chris was able to step in and assist with the refund.

  • Raven_Altosk

    American Airlines deserves a virtual spanking for this one.
    Glad this worked out for the OP.

  • Raven_Altosk


    Following up on liquid formula and TSA:

    On the return trip, we were treated much better by the agents in BOS. They took the bottles, peeled the labels off and put them in a machine that allowed them to look inside. The agent explained that this is the proper procedure and that patdowns are reserved for people carrying liquids in bottles that arrive unlabeled and cannot be seen through. I asked (out of curiosity since it comes up on this blog) what they do about breast milk since it obviously doesn’t come with a label.
    He said it should just go into the machine, but that a lot of women think the machine “irradiates” when in fact it does not, so they usually opt for a pat down.

    Since he was a supervisor and a reasonable individual, I recounted what happened with my GF in IAH. He said that should’ve NEVER happened and told me to send a complaint to via the internet and even gave me a card for his “station manager” with instructions to email it there as well, even though it was a different airport, they could route it to the right people in Texas.

  • EvilEmpryss

    I think it sounds like the OP may have contributed a tad to the form letter issue. If he submitted multiple requests online, that may have generated multiple auto-mailers asking for the required documentation. The explanation may have simply been for him to clarify the dates of the ticket purchase, the dates of intended travel, and the date of death. If Mom died *after* the date of travel, that would sort of invalidate the refund-due-to-death request.

    It’s a silly little detail, but I’m sure that they’ve had people try to play that card and have to ask now.

  • Bill Carr

    Ok, I am sure I am going to be jumped all over for this but what is not clear in the story was did she not take the flight because of a broken hip or sadly her death?
    If the former then American has every right to not refund a nonrefundable ticket.

  • The passenger died after suffering a broken hip. The refund request was sent after her death. AA would not refund a ticket because of a broken hip, and it would be difficult to advocate for a full refund (but not impossible).

  • The airlines operate customer service in the worst possible way. I remember working for months to drag a refund out of American several years ago, I couldn’t believe how inept they were. Airlines are the only business that excels in torturing their customers. It’s appalling and I’m not sure how we got to this point or what to do about it. It just goes on and on.

  • Daddydo

    Sometimes the article is not clear enough, and more facts are needed. 1) Was the death pre-flight 2) was the flight cancelled by the passenger’s family 3) Did he have his knowledgeable travel agent take care of this? It’s an easy service if you know what you are doing.

  • emanon256

    Why are people voting Raven’s post down?

  • Joe_D_Messina

    That may well be true. Side note that while Chris is big-time into people doing stuff in writing, I’ve frequently found phone to work better for stuff like this. Assuming you can reach a live person, they can give you instructions, you can clarify anything that isn’t clear, and it stays away from the form replies that you typically get via email. I can see how having a record of complaints and responses can be crucial in some cases, but writing isn’t always the best way to get simple questions answered.

  • TonyA_says

    I agree, AA made a mistake and Chris deserves a gold medal on this one!

  • TonyA_says

    Maybe they were expecting snark and did not get it so they were not happy.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    IMHO, this was a no-brainer for AA but what I believe happened is, they knew they owed the refund but hope the person requesting it would simply go away.

    I’m glad the OP involved you, Chris, and that you were able to bring this to its rightful conclusion.

  • emanon256

    I voted yours up in agreement. But all these down votes confuse me. I thought I finally stopped getting them after I changed my picture. Also, I no longer get an e-mail when someone replies to one of my comments, but Disqus says its setup to send one. I hate the new Disqus.

  • Thomas Ralph

    Because it’s off-topic?

  • Raven_Altosk

    Off topic but approved by the mods. So IDK what people’s problems are…whatevs.

  • TonyA_says

    I still get an email occasionally but they are really late.
    I think you need to look at the myDisqus Icon with the number on the right to see who replied to your posts.
    As for down arrows, my new personal policy is NOT TO USE THEM.
    If I disagree with the post, I either write down my opinion or ignore the post.
    I do not believe you need to be overly concerned about getting down arrows since you are entitled to your own opinions. I have always found your posts as sincere so I do not know why anyone would ding you for your opinion. Don’t sweat it and just be yourself. Cheers!

  • TonyA_says

    Question, does the AA bankruptcy have anything to do with their committments to refund?

  • TonyA_says

    Did you mean she made two different requests:
    1) cancellation due to hip surgery, then
    2) refund due to death of passenger?
    Even then, both requests would referrence the same eticket number.
    I did not look up the AA tariff rules but I suspect the first request will result to a free reissue or rescheduling. And the second request will result to a refund of the value of the eticket which remained unused.

  • MarkieA

    I doubt that it’s totally ineptness. Mostly I think it’s just them dragging it out – they have all the time in the world – until you get tired of fighting. Their actuariasts have determined that it takes the average person x amount of time to simply give up. In the long run, it’s to their financial advantage to pay someone to keep sending you form letters and denials, etc until you quit.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Maybe they are voting down the TSA? I can tell you I wasn’t inclined to up-vote your post, only because I know full well that any complaint you send to them will end up in the big G file.

    The TSA is a complete and utter waste of $8 BILLION dollars a year, and what you and your girlfriend experienced on the way out is mild compared to what many of us experience every time we fly…especially people like me with metal body parts or disabilities. Complaining does nothing, and will often get you the “DYWTFT” thread (do you want to fly today?).

    I’m glad you encountered a TSA clerk still holding on to some semblance of humanity, but they are few and far between. And don’t believe a word of his stupid “file a complaint” speech. FAR worse things happen at TSA checkpoints every single day, and NOTHING CHANGES.

  • EdB

    I emailed Chris about this and he said he would check on it. I have a feeling it is something to do with the forum being moderated now is why the emails are not coming through.

  • It shouldn’t. Only if the company goes Chapter 7 does that affect passenger refunds, I’m told.

  • TonyA_says

    But this should be an easy one. For as long as she CANCELLED the flights or reservation BEFORE the departure (date and time), the ticket will retain its value for one year from issue date. Since the passenger died one month later, then the AA death provision will kick in (assuming the ticket is still unused and not expired).


    Therefore, AA should have refunded the non-refundable ticket.

  • I think the down arrows are being misused. Raven detailed a purely factual scenario, there was nothing to agree or disagree with.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Don’t sweat the down votes, Em. I used to have a boss from Texas who always said “If you’re not pissin’ people off, you’re not doing your job right, and I’m doing my job REAL good.” Em, you’re doing real good. :-)

  • emanon256


  • Good point. If you can put up with the wait to talk to a real live person, that might streamline the process…

  • Ann Lamoy


    Thanks for the follow up. It is pertinent information for all breast feeding Moms that might read this blog. Arming people with the right information will help them know their rights and allow them to tell the TSA agents (in a calm and reasonable manner) this is what should happen.


    On a general note, I figured out why I don’t get pop-ups when I am on my lap top. I use Fire Fox and have a pop-up blocker enabled. I just noticed I got the notification that a pop-up was blocked. (I generally ignore them and it goes away when I close the tab.) I am getting them on my Android phone and Kindle Fire.

    Also-thank you for intervening and helping Mr. King get the refund. Losing a loved one is never easy and having to deal with the obstinate bureaucracy for months afterwards like this is rubbing salt in an open wound. Shame on AA for giving him the run around.

    @emanon256:disqus I didn’t realize it was you posting since you changed your icon. Stupid people down voting you for it. Bad Red Sox fans. (And I say that as a Red Sox fan). :)

  • emanon256

    Thank you :) I even went to Fenway recently and the Red Sox fans were quite nice to me while giving me a hard time. No one was mean. Its starting to become a fun rivalry again.

  • I couldn’t agree with you more. They should have done a lot more but Chris really was a shining star here.

Get smart. Sign up for the newsletter.