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.

32 thoughts on “Is this enough compensation? They promised me a refund but there was a catch

  1. I’m interested to see the update but from what I’ve seen so far, I think the airline has done enough. They not only offered a refund on a non-refundable ticket (and based on his initial misunderstanding of the status of the return ticket and your indication that there’s a language issue, I’m not yet convinced they ever told him he’d get cash back if he offered a doctor’s note), they also refunded the points used for the upgrade on the outgoing flight.

  2. I can guess what happened with the original return leg… I’ll bet he paid for an upgrade after he bought the original return ticket.  Changing your reservation from a non-refundable fare to one in an ordinarily-refundable fare class does not turn your ticket into a refundable one.

    This actually makes sense, otherwise people would do this all the time in order to get refunds on their non-refundable ticket.

    1. Based on how I read the story, he used miles to “upgrade” the flight out but bought an actual first clas ticket for the return leg. It said nothing about upgrading the return leg with cash instead of miles.

      What seals the deal for me was that the airline claimed that he could get a refund with the doctor note. They didn’t say anything about a fee or only credit. They need to refund the ticket since that is what they promised to do.

  3. Continental should plan ahead when they sell a ticket to an 87 year old man and his 80 year old wife that there’s a good chance that one or the other will become infirm and not be able to fly.  Going to Las Vegas for your 60th anniversary is a trip of a lifetime, and Continental should have gone out of their way to accomdate these Fort Lauderdale love birds.

    1. That’s the most wrongheaded thing I’ve heard in a long time. The 87 year old man and his 80 year old wife should plan ahead, not the airline.  

      1. I’m pretty sure in this case Tom is being sarcastic. Although, considering his comments in the past, it’s sometimes hard to tell.

  4. Once again, the need for trip insurance is vital, particularly in this case. That said, I don’t know if their age would have precluded getting a reasonably priced policy. But insurance should always be considered.

  5. As usual, certificates, vouchers, whatever other silly term they like to use isn’t the same as a real refund.

  6. All First Class tickets on CO used to be fully refundable whether bought as part of a non-refundable trip or alone.  It was recently that this changed so that the entire trip defaults to the refundability of the most restrictive segment of the entire trip.  In other words, if any part of the trip is nonrefundable, the entire trip is.  Also, unless you now buy the most expensive 1st ticket offered on CO most of those fares are also nonrefundable anyway (thanks to CO aligning their fares with UA) which I find extremely annoying since you are paying as much or more than the fully refundable Y class coach seat for the cheapest 1st seat now and there is always someone waiting to fill that 1st seat if you cancel.  But rules are rules.

    In this case, the OP was either misinformed by whomever he talked with at CO or simply misunderstood.  I agree that the employee at CO who offered the refund at least tried to help by bending the rules as much as allowed, but it is not enough.  Both tickets should have been refunded since there is no point in one of the passengers going on the trip without the other.  And I am sure the voucher offered is non-transferable so that even of he wanted, the OP could not use it to fly a relative to visit them.

    Just another example of once good airlines failing to see the forest for the trees.

  7. This is why we need passengers rights bill passed. If he were a platinum flyer, they would have no problems doing the right thing for him. I was a continental platinum flyer for 10 years+. Then lost status when I started flying another airline. I then soon realized that they treat “regular” folks like gum on the bottom of their shoe. Mr Yanez had a letter from a doctor, would they rather have an ill woman flying across the country?

  8. As a Gold OnePass member I have discovered CO’s standard line is “as a one time good will gesture”.  Kind of a nolo contendere plea 🙂

  9. Welcome to the Wonderful World of United. The good old days of a caring and considerate Continental are gone forever.

      1. Yes you can blame United.  They are the bigger of the two airlines and nearly every change to CO since the merger has been to make CO more like UA, not the other way around.  The only good thing to come out of the merger so far is free alcohol at United airport clubs.

  10. I agree that there was a language barrier.  But people have to be responsible for their
    own actions.   The airlines can not operate when they are giving out refunds to people
    who can not fly.   The passengers should have purchased airfare cancellation insurance
    to cover incidents like this.  If this was a preexisting related illness then they should have not booked the flight.  I think there is more to this story.

  11. I must say I am surprised with the language barrier…..given Continental seems to have a relatively large Latin America travel business that you would think they would have the capabilities to get past the language barrier….

    The tickets should have been refunded or they give them credit for this travel if they are able to do the travel.

  12. What is the fare basis of the outbound segments and the return segments?  The rules of these dictates what is allowed.  If these were combinable roundtrip fares, then the most restrictive portion of the ticket applies.  If they are priced using one way fares, which as of a few minutes ago, I price this routing in my GDS, then the nonrefundable ticket price, less the $150 change fee is reuseable and the refundable portion should be returned to the form of payment used to purchase the ticket.

    Sadly, too many online res agents don’t know what they are doing and if they book in F, but have the system price, it may rebook to a fare with a different rule.


    1. A $150 change fee for a domestic flight is never reasonable. It’s a ripoff. Southwest is this nation’s most consistently profitable airline and they don’t have a ticket change fee. 

      1. I don’t like the cost of the change fee either but I fully understand why they went to charging a fee.  I believe it started out at $25 and has worked its way up making it a cash cow for the airlines especially if travel consultants do all the work for zero of that fee!

  13. A little common sense on the part of this couple would have made a huge difference.  Why do we as a society always expect someone else to fix our mistakes?

    1. “Common sense?”  That seems a little harsh, no?  The guy is 87 years old and (apparently) doesn’t speak English very well.  He thought he did everything he was supposed to do.  I travel for a living and still sometimes get caught with a “gotcha” moment.

      I usually side with the airlines on these things, as I do believe that most tickets have been non-refundable, non-changeable for some time – that (most) anyone should know that when purchasing a ticket.  However, there HAS to be some situations where common sense – on the part of the airlines customer relations team – comes into play.  Offering a nearly 90 year old man some travel vouchers hardly seems like the right thing to do.

  14. Glad to see the outcome as posted in the update.  Good for Continental!

    I’m pretty sure that someone at Continental monitors blogs/posts such as this, so for that person, “Thank you Continental for being nice to an elderly couple.”  Also for Continental, “Perhaps you could review this incident in training with your agents and decide how this could have been handled better?”

  15. So now even first-class tickets are non-refundable? I thought that being able to change your plans was one of the few reasons left for paying the high price.

    1. It depends on the type of first class fare you get.  In many markets there is a restrictive first class and a unrestrictive first class.  Same with biz class, along with coach.

    2. Yes.  1st class tickets are now sold like coach.  You can pay the highest price (Y class in coach, 1st varies in class) and the ticket is fully refundable, changeable,whatever you want to do with no penalty. If you buy the discounted 1st tickets on CO, they are like the cheapest coach tickets and are not refundable and are loaded with fees.

      For example, last year I would buy last minute 1st class tickets on CO for most of my personal travel and pay around $800 round trip.  The same last minute tickets in coach were $1200.  (Yes, I know, if I planned ahead the flights would have been much less in coach, but my job doesn’t allow for too much advance notice for leisure travel.)  Both were refundable and changeable without fees.  Today, the same routes are $1200 for the cheapest ticket in 1st which is non refundable and non changeable or $1200 in coach which is refundable and changeable with no fees and get a free upgrade to 1st! Where is the logic in that?

      So now you are better off buying the full fare coach ticket if your plans are subject to change.  Or fly an airline like Southwest that doesn’t charge you when your plans change.

  16. I booked a flight on Continental on April 30 for travel on May 1. A few hours later I found the same flights through United website were about $100 less. I called Continental and the representative canceled original ticket and told me a full refund will be issued to my credit card. I booked new ticket on On May 15 I still did not receive refund for cancelled ticket, I contacted Continental and was advised to contact their refunds department on Monday – Friday between 9 am and 6 pm CST. I contacted Continental refunds department on May 16. After 1h10min on hold I talked to a representative and was advised that a refund check was mailed to me on around May 1st and it takes about three week to process. I told to wait another week and contact them again if I don’t get the check. Today is May 31 and this article reminded me I still did not receive the check as I was told.  I called continental’s refunds again and after being 1h35min on hold I was not able to speak with anyone because now the offices are closed. I believe the check refund is because I had multiple forms of payment and I have made multiple changes to the original reservation so there were at least three tickes issued before the reservation was cancelled. I send an e-mail to refunds today. Will see.

  17. I think the airline has done enough.  But what makes me irked is what he and thousands of other passengers have to go through in order to do this.

    Chris, it also ticks me off that all these passengers GET NOWHERE until they write you.

    As a former employee of what is now the largest airline in the USA, if not the world due to a recent “merger”, in the “old days” meaning the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s when I worked for them, this did NOT happen.

    For those of you who think looking back in time to the “good ole days” is foolish, let me tell you, for the airline passenger, those were DEFINITELY better for them. And that is a sad commentary on the airlines nowdays.

    They go out of their way to not respond to problems like this.  And an airline employee telling any passenger now days, the are going to get a  full or partial refund, in most cases nowdays, that is a pipe dream.

    Every one seems to be on some type of discounted or less then full fare ticket (or on some type of paid upgrade) even if the passenger does not realize this.

    This man did not have an “easy” ticket problem to resolve in the first place and that did not  help matters.
    I have been a travel consultant now for over 20 years, and they are no longer easy on us changing our passes either. We have to pay the same $150 as anyone else, plus we never get refunds if we have to cancel.

    They say, you are in our business you should not be causing us any addtional grief by changing or canceling.

    And we don’t get FREE tickets.  I pay 25% of the HIGHEST fare to a destination still on the books, that almost NO one ever pays.

    Example, went to Orlando years ago, my former airline, who goes nonstop out of Washington DC, on my 25% was going to charge me over $200.00, roundtrip based on full coach fare of over $900

    I started laughing, I said this is a perk to my job, hah.  Flying on a pass on this carrier, I have to be in business attire, go standby, give up a meal if there are not enough put on board (yes, I was on a meal flight this was over 10 years ago), and take usually a middle seat way in the back

    I pointed out to them they were having a sale, where the tickets were $158.00 roundtrip ($79 each way), I would buy my darn ticket like any passenger, get my airline points, book a definite seat each way, and forget the “travel agent pass

    The airlines can do anything they want, Chris, you know that, when you know who to contact, you get action for those who write you.  It should not boil down to that, but I salute you for trying to help as many as you can.

    1. Talk about the good old days.  I remember when the agency desk actually had airline res agents with experience and were the best of the best to be placed there…and they spoke English!  Now you get sent to a third world country, to a person whose English isn’t clearly spoken, doesn’t know that Hawaii is part of the USA and that a direct flight isn’t  nonstop.

      The people staffing the phones for many of the airlines do not know what they are doing.  Those of us who have been ticketing for decades just cringe when we have to call.  For DIY’ers, it is even worst, as shown with the OP. 

      Many feel the internet has made purchasing a ticket better.  That is absolutely not true.  The lack of information from the carriers, the lack of knowledge by the purchaser, is starting to bite the airline’s back.  How many calls are made due to mistakes only to have to speak to someone who doesn’t know how to correctly help you on the other end of that phone.

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