Too sick to fly — how about a refund?

By | November 19th, 2010

Question: I need your help. I’m suffering from end-stage liver disease, and my physicians have decided that my best chance for survival would be a liver transplant.

Based on my current status, it would not be safe for me to fly. I have asked US Airways for a refund on an airline ticket. But it responded with a form letter, saying, “nonrefundable tickets are one of the more restrictive tickets,” and offering the opportunity to change my ticket for $150 plus a fare differential.

I have requested a one-time exception to US Airways’ policy, based on my medical condition. I am a former elite-level frequent flier with US Airways, and have been very pleased with the service provided by the airline, until now. Can you help me persuade them to refund my ticket? — Gary Garretson, Jacksonville, Fla.

Answer: US Airways should consider refunding your ticket, based on your medical condition. But it doesn’t have to.

The airline’s contract of carriage — the legal agreement between you and the airline — says so. (You can download the entire document here.)

It says unused nonrefundable tickets “are valid and may be changed for one year from the date of issue,” as long as you notify US Airways on or before the scheduled departure date if you don’t plan to fly as ticketed. The new ticket is subject “to any applicable fees.”

In other words, you can still use your ticket if you postpone your trip, but you’ll have to pay a change fee and fare differential. Otherwise, your money is gone.

It could be worse: A few years ago, US Airways tried to make airline tickets completely nonrefundable — no exceptions. Passengers didn’t like that, and the airline quickly reversed itself.

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Then again, it could also be better. Ideally, tickets would be transferrable so that you could give your unused ticket to a friend or relative. Or even sell it to someone else.

Writing to US Airways was a good idea. The first response will inevitably be a form letter, repeating the airline’s “no refunds” policy. Which is exactly what you got. A review of your correspondence shows you appealed this denial, and were again turned down.

When that happens, you still have a few more people you can ask. (I list them on my site.) You can appeal the decision all the way up to the chief executive officer, and in a situation like yours, that may be necessary.

Fortunately for you, it wasn’t. I contacted US Airways on your behalf and asked it to review your request. Again, it didn’t have to bend its rules for you, but given your serious medical problem, I though it was worth asking.

US Airways agreed to refund your fare, minus a change fee.

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