After brother’s death, where’s my airfare refund?

Jorg Hackemann /
Jorg Hackemann /
After Irene Reitman’s brother passes away, she cancels her trip to Las Vegas. But American Airlines won’t refund her fare. Why not?

Question: My husband and I were recently scheduled to fly from Chicago to Las Vegas on American Airlines. Unfortunately, my brother died shortly before we left, and we canceled our non-refundable tickets.

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I subsequently noticed on the American website that non-refundable tickets could be refunded due to a death in the immediate family. I called the refund services desk for many days and could never get through to a real person. The message on this phone was “Due to circumstances beyond our control, we can’t answer the phone right now, call back later.”

I called for three days and received the same response. There was no opportunity to leave a message.

I sent American Airlines two e-mails and received no replies. I faxed them a letter with a copy of the obituary — again, no reply. I sent a letter to the customer relations office in Dallas, and again, no reply.

I would like a complete refund of my $705 airfare, but no one will talk to me. It’s very frustrating not to be able to talk to a person. I hope you can help. — Irene Reitman, Lincolnwood, Ill.

Answer: My condolences on your loss. American should have answered the phone the first time you called, instead of sending you through a bureaucratic maze during this difficult time.

American’s policy on the death of a passenger, immediate family member, or traveling companion, is spelled out on its website. At the time you booked your ticket, it said a change fee may be waived or the ticket refunded, provided a copy of the death certificate is presented to American Airlines.

The “refund” would be in the form of a nonrefundable transportation voucher that may be used for future travel on American Airlines only. (Only dead passengers can get full refunds, which go to their estate.)

In other words, American will let you miss your flight because of a death in the family, but if you send it a death certificate, it will offer you a voucher. If you’re a “no show” without proof of the death, you would lose the value of your ticket.

If you had emailed or faxed your brother’s death certificate, along with your record locator, to the airline, I think you might have received the promised voucher. But it’s difficult to know. The airline was operating under bankruptcy protection at the time this happened, and things have a way of slipping through the cracks when a company is trying to restructure.

You could have tried two other avenues. The first is an appeal to an American executive. I list their names and email addresses on my consumer advocacy website. The second would be filing a dispute with your credit card company, which might have succeeded if you could show that the airline isn’t following its own rules.

Fortunately, none of that was necessary. I contacted American on your behalf. A representative got in touch with you immediately and sent you a voucher for $705.

Should airlines refund a nonrefundable ticket when a close relative dies?

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70 thoughts on “After brother’s death, where’s my airfare refund?

  1. Chris, is your poll worded correctly? Most US carriers will refund in case of death of a passenger with proof. Did you mean to ask a different question since the article is about a death of an immediate family member?

      1. I don’t understand the poll question either. Since all airlines (even
        customer-hostile operations like Spirit) will refund the airfare, in cash, if the actual
        passenger dies, why ask the question? There’s no controversy… it’d make more sense to ask a question linked with the article.

      2. Might I ask why you didn’t direct the OP to immediately dispute the charge?

        I believe American Airline’s failure to respond created the perfect grounds for a payment reversal. Now, having reached the airline, the OP is stuck with a funny money voucher.

        My thoughts. Maybe I’m cynical and the OP is happy.

        1. If people insist on disputing charges when they’re 100% legitimate then eventually the CC companies will wise up and tighten restrictions on CC disputes. There was ZERO right to a refund and quite frankly the OP should be happy they’re getting a voucher without change fees. Travel insurance would have almost certainly covered this situation. They chose not to purchase it to save a few bucks. Why should they get the benefit?

          1. Areas we agree:

            1) Travel insurance is great for the unexpected
            2) Airline gives vouchers not refunds


            Reason for dispute:

            1) Airline didn’t respond to OP. Op keeps documentation, submits to Credit Card, and disputes valid claim. Business failing to abide by their own terms.

            2) Travel insurance companies are notorious for weaseling out of paying. I’ve had luck, but we read the stories on Chris’s site of those who have not.

          2. I’m going to have to take the unusual step of agreeing with Throughlyamused. As a nationally recognized advocate, Chris cannot direct someone to act unethically even though it may work. Advocating something this is clearly unethical, e.g. disputing a legitimate charge would tarnish Chris. In his line of work, he lives and dies by his reputation.

            The only way, Chris could advocate disputing this charge would be if AA refused to honor its obligations, e.g. AA refused to issue a voucher or continued to refuse to respond to the OP even after Chris contacted AA. Effectively AA tying the OPs hands. Then on balance the equities would lie with the OP.

          3. Agreed. “May” still requires the OP be given chance at recovery. AA’s inability to respond because of an ongoing bankruptcy furthers the OP’s plight of a credit card dispute.

            All and all good travel insurance can prevent headaches. Death is hard to gauge unless a person is terminal. Health is easier to predict. Saving a few bucks can become costly if one misjudges the situation.

            Personally, I travel with insurance. Between two trips to the Emergency Room, Dozens of Hospital Visits, and I’m a walking disaster. All within the last 6 months. Enough said.

          4. Maybe.

            There is a prohibition against illusory promises in a contract. Or as an old law partner said, promising the sleeves from his vest. The question is, under what terms will AA grant the request. In such a scenario, AA will still be bound by its own internal and customary procedures. It is unlikely that AA will have complete discretion even through it says “may”. So, odds are, AA is still under a legal obligation to provide the voucher.

          5. Let me clarify my position without backtracking.

            Chris is obligated to perform ombudsman duties morally and ethically. We’re in 100 percent agreement. There is also no dissent that Chris has sufficient insider knowledge to determine what is in an Op’s best interest.

            My stance is the Op stood a better chance disputing the charge than using Chris. A cash refund beats funny money. Thus, the transgression of events to maximize the OP’s recover are as follows:

            1) First try a credit card dispute. If the dispute fails, proceed to B (Chris).
            2) Involve Chris in an attempt to acquire compensation (Voucher).
            AA left ample grounds for a credit card dispute. Being unreachable and failing to abide by their terms on death constitutes a breach, correct?

          6. It’s questionable whether or not they actually breached contract. The only contract they are bound is the COC. While the info on their website is as I stated above, it’s not included in the COC. Many airlines masquerade this as a “Customer Service commitment”, which, as Chris said in another article, is a non–binding promise.

            Of course the OP would prefer a cash refund. Who wouldn’t? But a cash refund is out of the question and she is not entitled to it. And by filing a CC dispute, if you lose, the company is less willing to work with you. I should know. I used to deal with CDW disputes as a manager. I was more than willing to work with the customer in these situations, but if they insisted on filing a CC dispute to get ALL their money back, I would simply send the CC company the contract showing where the customer signed accepting the charge. 9 times out of 10, I would win the dispute, and from that point I would be far less willing to work with the customer. Filing a CC dispute should always be a LAST resort. Especially since a company losing a credit card dispute just means they’ll pursue getting the $$ in other means. That can mean a collection agency or being banned from doing business with said company ever again.

          7. My experience with disputing charges is the complete opposite. I’ve had nothing but luck 9 out of 10 times. All depends upon the company and whether or not their argument holds water. I try to dispute religiously giving companies fair opportunity to resolve a problem.

            Note: Fair meaning if I can’t reach someone after multiple attempts, I move to Plan B.

            Condolences to the OP since loss of a family member is difficult. The OP never mentioned travel insurance. Whether or not a policy is beneficial depends upon circumstance. If OP travels again and voucher isn’t restrictive, all good.

            Best of luck.

          8. The airline tickets might have been purchased 10 months before the flight-would the credit card really take that dispute seriously, if that was the case?

  2. voucher/=refund

    anyone can get a voucher (just cancel your flight online). it is ONLY when people THINK they are entitled to a refund, do they get all confused.
    people need to learn that pretty much NO ONE is entitled to a refund (except the dead, as you mentioned, because the dead will not be able to book another flight with a voucher.)

  3. I’m conflicted on this one. As people have mentioned on this site many times, non-refundable means non-refundable. Travel companies SHOULD provide a full refund for a person that dies, or their immediate family that was scheduled to travel with them. A brother that passed that was not scheduled to travel with them??? My condolences to the family, but myself, I would cancel and use the flight credit later (less the re-booking fee) and write it off to bad timing. If you can’t afford to lose the value of the ticket in the event of an unexpected event, get travel insurance – it isn’t that expensive. Is the time and stress spent trying to get a full refund worth the effort on the passenger side? What about the time and expense on the part of the airline, which gets passed onto everyone else?

    1. You mention that you would cancel and use the flight credit later minus the re-booking fee, which is exactly why I’m confused by the this article. The OP straight-out canceled the flight, and I assume it’s because they either didn’t want/need a voucher, or they didn’t realize it was an option. And then afterwards they researched and saw they could’ve received a voucher for the full value (although they mention refund, which isn’t the same thing at all).

      I sympathize with the OP, but the time to request a voucher is when the cancellation takes place, not after the fact. Nevertheless, the complete failure by the airline to respond to the OP is beyond frustrating and I’m glad Chris came to their aid.

    2. I assume that you meant AND their immediate family that was scheduled to travel with them?

      If what you’re saying is that my brother and I are on the same flight/itenerary, and he dies.. His estate should get (Or whoever bought the ticket, in case I was paying for his flight) a refund AND I should get a refund on my ticket as well?

      I’d have a hard time disagreeing with you in that case.

      Now, let’s say I am traveling.. Brother not with me.. He passes away 2 days before my flight.. I’ve got to re-arrange to get to him.. In that case, I believe you are saying that I should probably get the voucher and pay change fees?

      I would agree with that as well… With the exception that, if it’s an immediate family member.. From a compassion standpoint ,i’d say I would probably expect the airline to waive the fees. i’d think the airline SHOULD do that.. Whether they would is another story.You do have a good point about travel insurance in that case.. That is what travel insurance is for. Except for the fact that it seems there’s an equal number of stories on here where it won’t pay out. Which is sort of irrelevant and i’m rambling at this point, but..

      1. IF you are travelling and a death in the immediate family comes up, with the proper documentation, they DO offer the option of changing the ticket without a fee, but you may have to pay a difference in fares.

  4. Voucher? What happened to cash? Instead the OP is given funny money. Dropped the ball here.

    Op needed to dispute with credit card. Got a worse resolution by talking to airline AND GIVING THEM A CHANCE!

    1. The OP bought a non-refundable ticket. The Contract of Carriage and the website both only promised a voucher. All the OP was ever due was a voucher. Yes, AA dropped the ball here, but it was in not providing the promised voucher. They never promised cash.

      1. Yes, but AA refused to provide an outlet for remittance. Op needed to contact her credit card for a payment reversal. Giving AA a chance to “respond” let Irene with a stack of funny money,

        1. A stack of “funny money” was all she was due. If she had filed a credit card dispute, that still would have resulted in the promised vouchers and then the chargeback would have been reversed.

          1. Or the dispute would have been handed to a collection agency by AA. And that provides its own headaches in fixing.

    2. I agree that it would be preferable to receive a cash refund for a flight when a family member dies and you have to cancel your plans. Unfortunately that is not what the ticketing rules allow on AA for domestic flights. You do receive a voucher for the full amount of the ticket with no change fees, which in the airline world is fairly generous these days. Cash refunds are only offered on international non-refundable flights. Since I have not seen one of these vouchers, I don’t know if there are any restrictions on use that would reduce their value. Of course if you have no further plans to travel the voucher becomes completely useless. But that is one of the unfortunate consequences of buying a non-refundable ticket.

  5. Here in the UK, we would not refund non refundable fares for any reason, however we do buy travel insurance, there is around a 75-80% purchase rate, which seems to be the exception in the US. It may have something to do with price, with high levels of competition in the travel insurance market, it is relatively easy to get cover for 7 days for under $30. The only exception would be vacations to the US, where due to your ‘unusual’ health system, insurance costs are at least twice as much.

    1. When my grandmother passed away last year I went skiing in Aspen after the service. Definitely helped me move on a little quicker.

  6. Yawn, another person who didn’t buy travel insurance and wants the benefit anyways. I’m taking a trip to Puerto Rico over New Years and my grandfather was in hospice care at the time we purchased the trip. All the flights and hotels are nonrefundable to the tune of about $8,000. We found a travel insurance company who was willing to insure everything, even though the condition was pre-existing. So I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the OP here. I mean, they were lucky to get a voucher. They had the option to insure the trip and they choose to cheap out and not do so. Sorry, that’s the risk you take. The entitlement attitude really bothers me.

  7. So let’s review the facts and leave emotion out, shall we?:

    1. OP purchases non-refundable ticket and is given the restrictions prior to purchase.

    2. OP is given the opportunity to purchase travel insurance and chooses not to to save a few dollars.

    3. OP has unfortunate event which would almost certainly be covered by travel insurance.

    4. OP is given an EXTREMELY generous offer for a voucher with no change fees.

    5. OP believes she is entitled to special treatment and tries to make AA look bad in the press so she can get it.

    BUY TRAVEL INSURANCE. My family is taking a trip to PR where EVERYTHING, hotels, flights, etc is non refundable to the tune of $8,000. My grandfather was in hospice care at the time of booking and that wasn’t a risk we were comfortable taking so we paid around $400 to insure everything. We did our research, read the policy document from top to bottom, and spoke to (and recorded) an actual person who assured us that the pre-existing condition would be covered. Why should the OP be entitled to the benefit of insurance when she didn’t do her homework?

    1. In all fairness, there’s some fault on both sides here. The OP should have paid more attention and understood she was only going to get a voucher, not a refund. And while the CoC didn’t require it, once AA promised to provide a full-value voucher, they should have done so upon request. Their inoperative phone line and ignoring e-mails was certainly not good customer service.

      I’m a big fan of trip insurance, but it makes little sense for an advance-purchase domestic plane ticket; there’s just not that much money at risk.

    2. 1) Those restrictions include provisions for receiving a refund in the form of a voucher when a family member dies.
      2) The Allianz travel insurance policy sold by AA doesn’t cover pre-existing conditions.
      3) That policy would generally not cover the OP unless her brother was completely healthy for the previous 6 months before her flight purchase
      4) The OP received absolutely nothing before she contacted Chris.
      5) She was entitled by AA’s contract to exactly what she received. Where do you see her complaining about what she finally received (which she received only after Chris intervened?)

      1. 1. The exact words on AA’s website are: “American Airlines MAY review for an exception under the following set of circumstances…” There is ZERO contractual obligation for AA to provide the voucher.
        2. Lots of other travel insurance policies out there. A google search for travel insurance reveals about 20 different companies. I purchased Travel Guard for my PR trip which coveres pre-existing conditions provided the policy is purchased within 14 days of initial trip deposit.
        3. Nothing in the story indicates that the brother wasn’t completely healthy. The 6 months you mentioned is the policy of ONE policy at ONE travel insurance company.
        4. See #1. In addition, it’s clear the OP thought she deserved special treatment because she was expecting a CASH REFUND.
        5. Again, see #1. They say they MAY provide an exception. There isn’t any DOT regulation that would require them to do so, and the COC doesn’t technically require it either. If she pursued this in small claims she would lose.

        1. Where do you see the OP “expecting” a “cash” refund or seeking “special treatment?”

          Her exact words:

          I subsequently noticed on the American website that non-refundable tickets could be refunded due to a death in the immediate family.
          I would like a complete refund of my $705 airfare, but no one will talk to me. It’s very frustrating not to be able to talk to a person. I hope you can help.

          1. LOL. You just answered your own question. Nowhere in the OP’s statement does she mention a voucher. As Polexia said, voucher /= refund. If you go by the traditional definition of refund, that’s what she’s expecting here. Not a voucher. I agree that AA not responding isn’t appropriate, but if she wrote a letter/email demanding a cash refund I can kind of understand why they wouldn’t.

          2. AA itself calls it a “refund.”

            Then they add:

            “The refund will be in the form of a nonrefundable transportation voucher that may be used for future travel on American Airlines only.”

            So it takes quite a double standard to complain when the OP uses the word “refund” too.

          3. The fact that she asks for “a complete refund” of the airfare leads me to believe she was expecting cash and not a voucher. Also, that doesn’t change the fact that she wasn’t “entitled” to it.

          4. That’s you reading things into what the OP said.

            “I would like” is not the same as “I expect.” And “complete” can easily refer, among other things, to not having 2 x $200 in change fees deducted.

            Where did the OP complain about the voucher?

          5. Where does the OP ever complain when Chris reaches a resolution? It’s usually not detailed in articles, but I’m willing to put money on the fact that she was expecting a cash refund. Her language seems to indicate as much.

            What you still haven’t responded to is the issue of entitlement. You say, ” She was entitled by AA’s contract to exactly what she received.” The fact of the matter is that under the COC AA wasn’t obligated to do anything. If this was US Airways they wouldn’t have done anything. So I still think it’s pretty generous of AA to waive the change fees.

          6. And asking for a cash refund is special treatment. She’s not entitled to it, at all, but she thinks that she is the exception to the rule, ie deserves special treatment.

    3. Your facts are wrong

      4. OP is given an EXTREMELY generous offer for a voucher with no change fees.

      That’s plain wrong. The OP was entitled to a voucher w/o the change fees. See AA’s contract of carriage: See Domestic Nonrefundable Tickets: Death or Illness

      There was nothing generous amount AA’s offer. However, as the OP was unable to contract AA, it is perfectly reasonable to escalate it to Step 2, i.e. get help. OP got the voucher that she was entitled too and she’s satisfied.

      1. See my response to Michael K. AA’s website says they MAY consider an exception. As an attorney you should know this does not obligate them to do so and it certainly doesn’t mean she’s entitled to it. Chris leaves this part out of the story but it says so on AA’s website. I agree that it was poor customer service to simply not respond. I’m irritated not because the OP wrote to Chris, but because she wrote to him asking for a CASH refund.

        1. Nowhere in anything posted by Chris does it state she is asking for a CASH refund. She is asking for a FULL refund which would seem to indicate a credit not reduced by a change fee which is what she eventually got.

  8. When my father passed a few months ago United was great about providing me a refund of the change fee for a flight I had booked. I simply uploaded a copy of the death certificate and sent in my request. A couple weeks later the fee was reimbursed. Best I could hope for.

  9. Aren’t we losing sight of the basic problem here? The traveler was apparently satisfied with the voucher. The problem was with AA’a complete failure to communicate with her. When I read her letter to Chris, it looks as if she tried everything she could think of to contact AA, and met with complete failure in every attempt. All AA had to do to make this right was to respond to her, so that she could understand what AA was willing/able to do. Isn’t that the real issue here?

  10. Airline refund/voucher systems just don’t make sense most of the time.

    On a recent trip on UA, the flight was cancelled due to weather issues. UA offered either to rebook on a future flight with no change fee (not the next flight, which is an important distinction) or a full refund to original source of payment. I looked at when I would be able to make the trip and saw that the next opportunity was priced $150 less than the cancelled flight. If I rebooked, I would not get the excess $150 refunded, so I took the full refund and booked the new flights saving $150. IF the flight would have cost $150 more, I would have had to pay UA that extra amount. Doesn’t sound fair to me, yet airlines still wonder why their passengers are not happy.

    1. Perhaps one of the TAs could opine, but I would have thought that you would also have had the option of traveling on the next available flight. Is it possible that that was not communicated properly?

      1. WEATHER cancellations do NOT require them to put you on next available flight (they actually have a 7 day window they can play with). And they do try everything they can to either refund the fare or get you re-accommodated as soon as they can, even if it means trying a different airport.

    2. Weather is considered an act of god, and they are required to do one of the following: refund the ticket — waive the fees to get you out within the next 7 days (NOT next available) — waive the fees and allow a change in location (Orlando now instead of Miami). And you are NOT entitled to hotel, meals or transportation (ground). They will NOT allow you to change to any flight, and although they may waive the change fee, should you choose to fly out on a flight which is more expensive, you would need to pay the difference.

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