Case dismissed: A strange delay dooms a ticket rebooking request

This may be one of the oddest cases I’ve ever been involved in. It’s particularly upsetting because someone, somewhere pushed a wrong button and made the problem impossible to fix.

Here’s what happened: A few days ago, I received the following email from Sherlene Stepp:

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I hope you can help me. I was supposed to fly to Ohio on Delta to assist my sick grandmother. I booked the ticket through Priceline.com.

I was getting ready for the trip when I received a call that my brother was in a very bad accident. I rushed to the hospital. My brother died about three hours later.

My brother was a police officer and his partner actually called Delta for me to let them know that I had an emergency and could not fly. They gave him a confirmation number and said when I was ready to rebook to call them.


Airlines often waive their refund rules when someone dies, so Delta did the right thing.

I finished with the funeral and tried to rebook. Now Delta says that Priceline has to rebook the ticket. I called Priceline and they said they needed proof because I should have thought to call Priceline as well as Delta that night.

I told them I was sorry but I was very distraught over the situation. I never thought I needed to call them as well. I faxed them the funeral information, death certificate, even the memorial handout with pictures.

Priceline said “no” — her tickets had expired. She appealed to Priceline executives, but their answer didn’t change. Because she hadn’t notified Priceline, she was out of luck.

I was not asking for money back. I just wanted a ticket because I still needed to fly out and help my grandmother. Do you have any suggestions, or am I out the $976 I paid for a ticket to Toledo? I would appreciate any advice you can give.

Within minutes of receiving her email, I forwarded it to my contact at Priceline. The response from Priceline was equally swift: Why are you sending us a case that’s exactly one year old?

And then I re-read the email. Sure enough, this happened in April 2010. (I hadn’t paid attention to the dates, either — my bad!)

What happened? Maybe it was a digital hiccup in one of the email servers, or maybe the email had been inadvertently queued up to send exactly one year later. Either way, Priceline couldn’t reopen a one-year-old case. It says it would have been able to help, had she contacted Priceline before her departure, but she didn’t. And so Stepp will lose the $976 she paid for her ticket.

There’s a lesson in here for all of us. Always keep your travel agency in the loop when you change tickets, and make sure you do it before your flight — not one year afterwards.

I feel awful for Stepp, losing her brother and then her airline ticket. I wish I could have helped her.

Update (9:10 a.m.): Shortly after this appeared, Delta contacted me and agreed to fully refund Stepp’s ticket, as a “one-time” exception. I am left with the impression that had Stepp booked the ticket directly through Delta, this wouldn’t have been a problem.

You’ve gotta love a happy ending! Thanks, Delta.

(Photo: slasher fun/Flickr Creative Commons)

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