After husband’s fall, will American offer a refund?

When Susan Kaufman’s husband takes a fall, she has to cancel her flight from Boston to Washington, D.C. Will American refund the tickets — or ignore her request for help?

Question: I recently booked flights from Boston to Washington, D.C., for my husband and me to visit my son for his birthday. My husband has lung cancer. Before our flight, he fell down a flight of stairs and was unable to fly. I’m so disappointed to have to cancel our tickets and hope we won’t lose the cost of the flight on top of everything else.

I called American to cancel the flights and sent a fax and letter explaining the reason from his oncologist. I don’t want a voucher for the flights. I’m not sure if we’ll be able to use it, since my husband’s health is so precarious. Can you help me get the $445 back for the tickets? — Susan Kaufman, Westwood, Mass.

Answer: I’m so sorry to hear about your husband’s condition, and I hope he makes a quick recovery. Actually, that should have been American’s answer to you — plus a timely refund of the $445.

Why should the airline refund a nonrefundable ticket? Because it’s the right thing to do. Oh sure, people will say that rules are rules (and indeed, they are). They’ll say you should have bought travel insurance, which might have covered you.

Then again, maybe not. I’m betting a claim like his would have been met with a form rejection, noting that his cancer was a “pre-existing” condition.

Part of the problem with your claim was your level of technical expertise. You seemed a little uncomfortable using email and, instead, preferred to make your inquiries by phone and fax. That used to work for airlines, but not so much anymore. I think you might have made more progress by sending a brief, polite email to the right people at American with all of the necessary documentation. I list the names, numbers and email addresses of American’s executives on my customer service site. Instead, you called and sent a paper letter.

Related story:   Did Holiday Inn lie to me about its refund policy?

That’s not an excuse for American and the other airlines that have outsourced their call centers and stopped reading their mail. But it’s just the reality of the situation. Next time, send an email if you can.

I contacted American on your behalf. It quickly and compassionately refunded the $445 you spent on your tickets.

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.

  • Dan

    I’m glad this LW received a refund and I wish all cases ended this way. Though I am curious as to why the team decided to advocate this case. There are a countless stories in the Case Dismissed file about people in the LW’s situation, but those stories are met with a “rules are rules” and “nonrefundable means nonrefundable” reply.

  • Lindabator

    agreed – and why do w assume a company should just refund everyone with a sob story? Thy are a BUSINESS at the end of the day, and it should not be expected they refund nonrefundable tickets just ‘cus. I advocate for my clients, but I also educate them, and recommend insurance to cover just such incidents.

  • Tripper1

    I had to cancel my American flight following my husband’s cancer diagnosis and kidney surgery over the Christmas holiday. This was the first time I had to cancel a flight, so with the exception of expensive airline tickets and trips, I do not purchase cancellation insurance. I followed your guidelines for requesting an exception and wrote a polite letter asking them to consider a credit. I received a prompt response allowing me a credit on a future flight. I was extremely satisfied with their consideration and kind response.

  • Alan Gore

    Because whacking your customers’ knuckles with a ruler will get you more of them?

  • Alan Gore

    THIS, people, is the way your business gets more customers. The loyal kind, who you see again and again.

  • Bill

    holding people accountable for their decisions is not punitive, as a whack on the knuckles would be.

  • BubbaJoe123

    While I guess it’s nice that AA gave her the $445, I don’t honestly see why she’s more entitled to get $445 from AA than any other person with a spouse with cancer. In that corporate charity is nice, fine, but I certainly wouldn’t have thought less of AA if they’d declined to hand over the money.

  • BubbaJoe123

    You’d think, but I’m curious. How much of a premium is Tripper1 willing to pay on future flights to fly AA vs. another carrier? Maybe some, but, generally, airline customers are almost purely price-driven.

  • Tripper1

    Price is not my first concern, but I do consider it. More important considerations include: a preference for non-stops and seat comfort. I recall the airlines that treat me well when booking flights. I am also willing to pay more for front of the airplane seats with additional leg room, as well as business or first for flights over five hours.

  • disqus_wK5MCy17IP

    It’s not “just ‘cus.” The advocate is saying they should get a refund because they may not have been covered by insurance had they inquired about a policy. Healthy people have to self-insure, but the airline is responsible for everyone else.

  • Annie M

    “Then again, maybe not. I’m betting a claim like his would have been met
    with a form rejection, noting that his cancer was a “pre-existing”

    He didn’t cancel for the cancer – he canceled because he fell down a flight of steps and was injured. I’m betting insurance WOULD have covered this claim. Totally different reason unrelated to the cancer.

  • Annie M

    This most likely would have been covered with insurance. He fell down stairs – it has nothing to with his cancer. Falling down stairs is not a pre-existing condition. And his cancer would have been covered had they bought insurance within the time frame that allows a pre-ex waiver and he was healthy enough to travel on the day he booked the trip and bought the insurance.

    It’s actually silly NOT to buy insurance with a pre-ex waiver if you have a chronic condition and are healthy enough to travel on the day you book the trip and buy the insurance.

  • Annie M

    So do you plan to buy insurance going forward in case something like this happens? I hope you see why it is wise to buy it because the airlines aren’t going to be forgiving all the time.

  • Tripper1

    No. I will continue to “self insure” for lower cost flights and purchase insurance for trips that are more expensive. I realize that the airlines may not always make an exception, but it is nice when they do!

  • joycexyz

    I’m inclined to agree. The reason she brought it up is they didn’t want vouchers because of his precarious health–which I’m assuming is the cancer. But it could have muddied the waters.

  • LonnieC

    Are you suggesting he decided to fall, or that he decided to have cancer? (Yes, I know – he decided not to get insurance. But that likely wouldn’t have worked here: (“pre-existing condition”).

  • Annie M

    It depends on what the insurance reimburses you for. Some policies only refund in vouchers, some cash. Another reason to actually read what you are buying.

  • Lindabator

    they are NOT responsible for you falling

  • Lindabator

    3rd party NEVER give vouchers – only time you get those is when you use a company’s self-insurance

  • Bill

    Exactly! Moreover, if the pilot had fallen down a flight of stairs, would the plane load of passengers have shrugged, said, “Aw shucks!” and gone home? No. They would have demanded that the airline keep to their side of the “contract” and gotten them on their way. Why is it so many people think contracts should only be enforced on the provider, but the receiver can do as they please?

  • Bill

    Surely you do not mean to say they SHOULD get a refund from the airline because they MAY NOT HAVE been able to get reimbursement from an insurance policy they didn’t buy?? If that is the case, I should be able to get refunds for all sorts of things becuase I didn’t choose to buy insurance. Traffic, flat tire, forgot what time it was. If you want a refundable ticket, buy it. If you don’t want the added cost for the added value, roll the dice. But when it comes up snake eyes, don’t expect the airline to make you whole because you had an unfortunate situation come up AFTER you chose nonrefundable tickets AND not to buy insurance.

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