Can Frontier Airlines keep my nonrefundable fees after my sister died?

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Christopher Elliott

When Christine Schaefer booked a nonrefundable roundtrip ticket from Philadelphia to West Palm Beach, Fla., on Frontier Airlines, she had every intention of being on that plane. After all, she was flying to South Florida to spend Christmas with her sister, Madeline.

Sadly, it didn’t happen. Just before the flight, Schaefer’s sister died.

Schaefer canceled her reservation and requested a refund from Hopper, her online travel agency. She also asked Frontier to return her fees for luggage and early boarding.

You’ll never guess who said yes and who refused. Then again, if you read this site frequently, maybe you can guess.

Schaefer’s case is a painful reminder of the lengths to which airlines will go to pocket your money. Even death will not deter them. They don’t care why you have to cancel a nonrefundable ticket. And they’re even less likely to refund fees, which they count on to turn a profit.

But there are ways to prevent this from happening to you. And maybe — just maybe — my advocacy team and I can get all of Schaefer’s money back. I’ll have the unlikely resolution right after we take a look at Schaefer’s case.

“There is no reason to go to West Palm Beach.”

Schaefer thought she’d done everything right when she bought a ticket to Florida. She booked her airline ticket through a reputable online travel agent and paid the airline directly for her luggage and seat assignment fees. Frontier refers to these fees as a “bundle,” and they exceeded the $108 she spent on her ticket.

But she had not done everything right. And that’s something she probably realized when the cost of the fees exceeded the price of the ticket. She must have wondered why it cost more to check her luggage, bring a carry-on bag, and get a seat assignment than to actually fly to West Palm Beach.

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None of it mattered to Schaefer anymore when she contacted me. Tragically, Madeline had passed away shortly before the holiday, and Schaefer didn’t need to fly to Florida.

“There is no reason to go to West Palm Beach,” she told me.

Frontier: Your booking will “retain its value,” but …

Interestingly, Hopper refunded the ticket she’d purchased through its app right away. But the airline refused to return the money for the fees, which she’d bought through the Frontier website.

What are the terms of cancellation for this flight on Frontier Airlines?

The terms of her cancellation are clear: No refunds means no refunds.

If you cancel your booking, your booking will retain its value for 90 days in the form of a single-use travel credit with no residual value returned to you after use (should there be any). Any amount paid for Flight Flexibility will not be retained by you should you wish to cancel your reservation, regardless of whether or not you made an itinerary change prior to your cancellation.

Schaefer asked Frontier if she could have her fees back. A representative suggested that she accept the credit, then provide the airline with a death certificate, and she would get a full refund. But even after Schaefer sent Frontier Madeline’s death certificate, it refused to issue the refund.

Let me begin by expressing my sincere condolences for your loss.

We have reviewed the documentation that was submitted. I must respectfully inform you that we are unable to honor your request for a refund.

Although we are unable to give you a refund, we will issue a travel credit instead. Your credit must be applied towards booking a new reservation within 90 days from the date the original trip was canceled. Travel must be rebooked by that date, but may be scheduled beyond that date to any destination serviced by Frontier Airlines.

Not only did Frontier go back on its word. It also issued a credit that it must have known she couldn’t use. I mean, the airline was offering this grieving sister a three-month window to use $216 in flight credits.

Not only is Frontier charging her for something that should be included in her fare (seat assignments and luggage), but now it’s deliberately keeping money that it promised to refund.

How unfair is that?

Can Frontier Airlines really keep these fees?

Although Schaefer’s Frontier fees were nonrefundable, airlines can make exceptions to their rules when there’s a death in the family. Here’s how it usually goes:

  • Death of the passenger. Both fees and fares are always refunded, but sometimes the person’s next of kin has to ask and show a death certificate.
  • Death of a passenger’s companion booked on the same flight. Those are almost always refunded, both for the deceased passenger and the companion. Again, you have to show the paperwork.
  • Death of someone you are visiting but is not flying. Maybe, maybe not. Some airlines are understanding when that happens and will offer a refund, but others will refuse.

In Schaefer’s case, there was a verbal promise made to refund the fees, and she had already received a refund on the ticket. Frontier should have reviewed her case and at least considered a refund for the seat assignment and baggage bundle she purchased. It didn’t.

These airline fees are just crazy

This case is happening at an interesting time. Earlier this year, Frontier and Spirit Airlines announced their intention to merge in a deal valued at $6.6 billion. It would create the nation’s fifth-largest airline.

Both of these airlines refer to themselves as “ultra” low-cost airlines. But for many passengers, the opposite is true. The reason: The airlines quote a very low fare but then pile on the extras. In the end, their tickets often cost more than if you flew a legacy carrier.

How many extras do these carriers add to their tickets? Well, here are the top airlines for ancillary revenues according to IdeaWorks, an airline revenue consulting firm. Those are extras like seat assignments, luggage fees, and the sale of frequent flier miles.

Frontier Airlines ranks number 5 for extra fees across the industry in 2020.
According to a study by IdeaWorks, Frontier Airlines ranks number 5  for extra fees across the industry.

More than half of Spirit’s revenues and almost half of Frontier’s revenues come from fees.

Can you see why Frontier was reluctant to let go of Schaefer’s fees?

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe an airline ticket should include a confirmed seat assignment and luggage in the price you pay. Charging extra for basic amenities and making the fees nonrefundable, which is fast becoming an airline industry standard, isn’t customer-friendly.

Considering that Frontier is trying to merge with Spirit, I think it’s worth taking a closer look at cases like Schaefer’s.

I’m troubled that her fees cost more than her ticket, that the airline promised her a refund but then refused, and that it would not review her case when she asked it to help her.

I’m not sure how allowing Frontier to merge with Spirit would improve air travel, but that is exactly what supporters of this merger are saying.

Schaefer might have had more luck by appealing her case to someone higher up at Frontier. A supervisor could have reviewed her problem and the correspondence and authorized a quick refund. We publish the names, numbers, and email addresses of the executives at Frontier Airlines here.

Could travel insurance have prevented this?

Ah, but could Schaefer have avoided this problem by buying travel insurance? Maybe.

  • Travel insurance normally covers prepaid, nonrefundable travel expenses. In other words, if Schaefer had made it to the airport and paid for an upgrade or for early boarding, then her travel insurance policy would have probably been useless. But since she paid Frontier’s fees upfront, she would probably have been OK.
  • Travel insurance usually covers your immediate family. If it’s a father, mother, brother, sister or child, you stand an excellent chance of getting a full refund for the ticket. Be careful, though — travel insurance companies love to use red tape to slow down claims or discourage them, even if you have a valid claim.
  • Travel insurance may or may not cover your companion. Travel insurance companies have strict definitions for a companion — it must be someone traveling with you whose name appears with yours on the same trip arrangement and who will accompany you on your trip. If not, you won’t get a refund if they die.

The good news: Frontier Airlines is refunding those fees

Technically, Frontier didn’t have to refund Schaefer’s fees. They were nonrefundable.

But a promise is a promise. I thought the airline might want to take another look at Schaefer’s case. So I contacted Frontier on her behalf.

Frontier issued a full refund.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, Forbes and the Washington Post. He also publishes Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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