Can this trip be saved? I paid for the ticket — where’s my credit?

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By Christopher Elliott

One of the things travelers love about an airline like Southwest is that it goes against the grain. When other airlines charge baggage fees, it doesn’t. When they impose change fees, it doesn’t. When they have assigned seats, Southwest refuses.

So passengers can be forgiven for getting a little upset when Southwest starts acting like … well, other airlines.

Case in point: Linda Tober’s ticket credit problem. Earlier this year, she bought tickets for her daughter and three grandchildren to fly from Baltimore to Manchester, NH.

I bought the tickets far in advance to be assured that, with children involved, there would be a guarantee that they would all be on the same flight. A couple of months later, I checked to see if there had been a fare reduction and there was. Upon reissuing the tickets, a combined credit of $207 was accrued.

By the way, Southwest is unlike other airlines in that regard, too. Tober didn’t face any “reissuing” fees that would have nullified her fare reduction. (That’s something other airlines do.)

But unknown to her, Southwest had changed its policy. Instead of reissuing the credit to her, it gave the $207 to her kids and grandkids.

The dilemma and frustration about the above is three of the four ticket holders are children and the likelihood that these funds can be used by them within the time limit is remote. I respect that there are sound reasons to support your new policy, however, I personally paid for these tickets, these are youngsters, and the ink on this policy change was not yet dry when I bought the tickets.

Southwest refused an exception to its policy

Tober made her reservation in February, just a few days after Southwest quietly changed its policy to allow unused travel funds to only be applied to the purchase of future travel for the individual named on the ticket. The switch happened Jan. 28.

She asked Southwest for an exception to its policy, since it had just gone into effect. It refused.

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Tober sent a letter to a Southwest supervisor last week, asking it to reconsider.

“My loyalty to Southwest Airlines has been unwavering for many years,” she says. “I look forward to the continuation of our partnership.”

She hasn’t heard back from the airline yet, and wonders what she should do.

I can’t defend Southwest’s latest policy change, which brings it closer to the rest of the airline industry. I think it’s probably just a matter of time before it imposes a ticket change fee or a “reissuing” fee of some kind that would zero out the difference between fares.

If you think about it, the idea that Southwest would issue a refund of any kind is a little odd. Few other businesses issue refunds when the price of their merchandise drops. Apple famously issued a $100 store credit to iPhone customers in 2007 after it lowered prices on its phones, but such a move is highly unusual.

What if the situation was reversed?

If Southwest’s fuel expenses suddenly rise (which, coincidentally, they almost certainly did after Tober’s purchase) would it be able to ask her for more money?

Alas, that’s something another airline would like to be able to do. But that’s another discussion.

Should I jump in and mediate this? Or should I stand behind its new policy, even if it means Tober will probably lose $207? (Here’s how to get a refund on a nonrefundable airline ticket.)

Update (Aug. 16): Tober has a happy ending to report!

I spilled my tale of woe to a very attentive agent. When I was done he asked if my husband and I had any future flights booked on SW.

When I said that we had, he identified himself as a supervisor and proceeded to cancel the flights, re-book the same using the funds I otherwise would have sacrificed and now I can apply the funds accrued from the flights he canceled for travel into 2012.

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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 three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and 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 X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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