Is this enough compensation? They promised me a refund but there was a catch

When someone promises you a refund, you expect to get all your money back, right? But not if you’re dealing with an airline. And not if you’re Leopoldo Yanez.

He had booked a flight from Fort Lauderdale to Las Vegas on Continental Airlines this month for his wife and himself. It was their 58th wedding anniversary, so he wanted to make it special.

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I used 30,000 miles to upgrade to first class the leg from Fort Lauderdale to Las Vegas, which I knew it would be non-refundable, and I bought a first class ticket for the return leg, which they told me is fully refundable.

Unfortunately, my wife got very sick and it was forbidden by her physician to walk. I had to cancel our reservation.

When he asked for a partial refund, Continental informed him the return leg wasn’t refundable, after all. But if he sent a letter from a physician, the airline would return the money he paid for the tickets.

Yanez sent a physician’s letter to the airline. Here’s how it responded:

Thank you for contacting Continental Airlines regarding your non-refundable, non-transferable ticket.

Continental Airlines offers many different fares for customers to choose from. We offer discounted, restricted non-refundable fares that typically incur a penalty for any changes made to the ticket. We also offer fully refundable fares, for a higher fare, which do not incur a change fee, and may be refunded back to the original form of payment should the travel not be needed. Customers are expected to choose the fare that best suits their travel needs.

Customers booking with us or on our website are provided a 24-hour risk free policy. We will fully refund the ticket back to the original form of payment should the itinerary be cancelled within that 24-hour period. After the 24-hour period expires, all terms of the ticket apply.

As a one time goodwill gesture, I have requested Mrs. Yanez’ unused ticket to be refunded back in the form of a travel certificate, minus the $150 applicable change fee. The upgrade mileage redeemed has been requested to be redeposited, with the redeposit fee being waived. The travel certificate will be valid for one year from the date of issue and will be mailed to the address listed in the itinerary after processing has been completed.

Mr. Yanez, your ticket is still live and is available for reissue until November 29, 2011. Please be advised all terms of the ticket will apply upon reissue. As of November 29, 2011, the ticket will go to no value status.

Yanez is disappointed. While Continental refunded the ticket as promised, it removed a $150 change fee unexpectedly, and it issued funny money.

“What is the point of a travel certificate if we can’t use it?” he says.

It seems Yanez believed his first-class ticket was refundable, when it wasn’t. But as I look at the back-and-forth between Yanez and Continental, another problem becomes apparent: The two parties were having some difficulty communicating. (I cleaned up some of Yanez’ English in his email, but I think it’s possible that there may have been some language issues.)

Still, refunding only Yanez wife’s ticket, and not his, is a cold-hearted move on the part of Continental. Issuing it as a certificate showed they didn’t understand the problems this couple faced.

Continental didn’t have to do anything, of course. But asking an 87-year-old passenger to use a ticket, while his 80-year-old, disabled wife can’t walk — I don’t know how they could do that.

Update (3:30 p.m.): Yanez has received a full refund for both tickets.

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