Mercy! Airlines should refund tickets for cancellation, death, disease and other unfortunate circumstances

When should airlines refund a nonrefundable ticket?

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More often than they do. A lot more often.

About 9 in 10 respondents to a recent survey say they should get their money back when a flight is canceled for any reason. More than 88 percent of the respondents to the multiple-choice poll also said airlines should issue a refund with a death certificate, presumably to the next of kin.

Nearly 80 percent said airlines should let passengers off the hook and refund their money when they have a communicable disease.

Only one-third of the respondents said refunds should be given when a passenger can’t make it to the airport for reasons beyond his or her control, and less than 5 percent said money should never be returned on a nonrefundable ticket.

Your comments were equally interesting.

Reader Joseph Vaughan said above all, airlines should be flexible.

There can be a set of uniform rules for when refunds will always or never be made but there should also be leeway for specific cases where airline customer service supervisors have the authority to consider exceptional mitigating circumstances beyond the uniform rules that warrant either partial or full refunds or some other type of compensation.

Others, like Nancy Carter, thought the refunds were only fair.

Funny that when an airline has a problem they will refund the nonrefundable ticket. But shouldn’t it go both ways?

Sylvia Prast thought of a few more exceptions she’s like to see:

• If you hold a ticket to somewhere when you need to go to a bedside or funeral elsewhere.
• If you need to extend your trip due to family illness.
• If war-type events break out at or very near your destination, threatening your well-being should you take the trip.
• Hurricanes, fires, floods and such natural disasters (or man-made natural disasters such as the recent Gulf oil spill) that affect the entire region.
• If an announced threat to the airlines themselves (flight hijacking or bombing) for your flight time or route.
• If illness epidemic outbreak threatens your destination (such as H1N1 flu in Mexico last year).
• If weather closes the roads to the airport from your location (officially!).

Whoa. That’s too many to fit into a survey, but definitely worth contemplating.

I also heard from industry expert Richard Eastman, who said making exceptions is easier said than done.

A non-refundable ticket is a business-decision on the part of the airline.

It is saying to the buyer that we’ll sell you this ticket on the basis that you will fill the seat in that specific airplane. When enough of those are sold, it ensures that the airplane will meet its operating costs on that particular segment.

I’ll concede that airlines sometimes lose their perspective and use the tactic to move market-share; but not as often as the consumer would imagine. It costs a chunk of money to simply fly an airplane from Point A to Point B. Making sure you meet operating costs on each segment is critical to survival. Therefore, the only time an airline should refund a non-refundable ticket is when the flight is canceled.

And in my opinion, they should not only refund the ticket – they should provide some sort of reciprocal penalty for not having provided the flight which the consumer was fully entitled to expect – with the exception of cancellations due to weather or some other act of God (in which case, the traveler should have the option of moving to another flight or getting a refund).

Documented death is a bit of a quagmire. The dead person won’t miss the enjoyment of the flight … and the paperwork involved in documenting and refunding the money will be more costly than the value of the ticket. That’s an “everybody loses situation” – both the airline and the dead person’s estate come out on the short end. But of course, logic rarely supersedes emotion in situations like that.

The problem with documented disease is that travelers will quickly devise ways to abuse the documentation process … either through false claims or through appeals to doctors. And like death, the labor and work involved in doing the paperwork will, in most case, cost more than the value of the flight to both the traveler and the airline.

Failure to make it to the airport, for whatever reason, is the passenger’s problem. As with a contagious disease, “documenting” that the problem was beyond the passenger’s control will both be abused – and incur costs beyond the value of the flight.

What do you think? When should an airline bend its nonrefundability rules?

The comments are open.