Is “heartless” Southwest Airlines profiting from dad’s death?

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By Christopher Elliott

Jennifer Kucinski lives in Kansas City. Her father lives in Orlando. Make that lived in Orlando.

A few weeks ago, she received devastating news that her dad had passed away unexpectedly. Compounding that tragedy was the fact that Southwest Airlines was trying to stick her with two overpriced plane tickets, a decision she calls “heartless.”

“Upon reaching the agent and explaining the situation, the first words out of the agents mouth were, ‘We don’t offer bereavement fares’,” she says.

Farewell to empathy

Many readers of this site know how the system works. Bereavement fares are all but extinct, mostly because passengers took advantage of them and the abuse cost airlines a lot of money. As a result, regular non-business travelers like Kucinski must pay the full walk-up fare for their planet tickets when they fly to a funeral.

Is that fair? Probably not. But the ethically-challenged passengers who used to lie about their aunt or uncle dying so they could get discounted plane tickets — that wasn’t fair to the airlines, either.

The question today is: What should I do with bereavement fare problems? Do I send them to the airline and ask them to reconsider them? Do I tell them “tough luck” — it’s the price you pay for a ticket? (Sorry about the death of your father or mother, by the way.)

I wrestle with this question all the time, and not just with Southwest Airlines plane tickets.

Let’s get back to Kucinski’s experience.

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I told the agent we needed to be on the first flight to Orlando, and asked what my flight options were.

I was then told that there were only a few seats left on a flight, and that the fare was $441 per seat.

When I asked if she could help me out with a lower fare, I was informed if I wanted a cheaper fare, I needed to look on the website.

We did not have time to go fare shopping online. We had limited time to get to the airport, so we made the only decision possible and out of desperation we took the fare.

I was insulted and very disappointed by the lack of empathy and posture shown by the airline in our time of need.

Grief at 30,000 feet

I understand how Kucinski must have felt. I get the book thrown in my face every day as a consumer advocate, and it never gets easier. While the agent might have been a little nicer about her plane tickets, she was just doing her job. Southwest Airlines — and indeed, most airlines, don’t offer bereavement fares, even when you show a death certificate.

Fortunately, the return tickets only cost $188 a piece. But Kucinski is still upset. No airline should profit from death, she asserts. (Related: Can Southwest Airlines extend my ticket credit? I have cancer.)

“I find it hard to believe that a $12.1 billion corporation which has the heart of the matter exhibits such behavior in a person’s time of tragedy,” she told me.

Kucinski took the matter of her plane tickets up with Southwest Airlines after she returned to Kansas City.

I contacted the customer service department and relayed my experience to a an agent who apologized, and transferred me to a manager. After an enlightening discussion with the manager, I was told that was the only fare available and that is why I was charged that amount and there was nothing they could do for me.

I feel my experience contradicts the alleged values of this corporation.

And what, exactly, are those “alleged” values?

Here’s Southwest’s mission statement: “The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of customer service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride and company spirit.”

This is the first time in my years of advocating for airline customers that someone has invoked a mission statement.

But you know what? She got me on that one.

There’s a relatively happy resolution to this case, but before I get to that, let me set up today’s “Can this trip be saved?” question. Should I mediate bereavement fare cases? Or should I offer the same answer, which is that these special fares are more or less gone now?

My advocacy team and I contacted Southwest on Kucinski’s behalf. She emailed me a few days ago with good news. (Here’s our guide to resolving your consumer problem.)

A representative from Southwest called last week and they credited us $138 — $69 for each ticket.

They also informed us that if we needed to call for a reservation and we didn’t have access to a computer, that a call needs to be made the customer relations specifically in Dallas at a specific phone number that is not advertised.

Thank you for calling Southwest on our behalf, it is appreciated.

I love a happy ending. But I can’t do this for every airline passenger who has a death in the family. Or can I?

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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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