“My aunt and uncle have both been shot and killed”

To those of you who say airlines don’t have a heart and who think they never bend a rule for a customer in need, let me introduce Teresa Stewart. She was on a cruise vacation recently when tragedy struck, and she needed to reschedule her Continental Airlines flight.

Did the airline throw the book at her? If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you might be forgiven for thinking it would. But it didn’t.

Here’s what Stewart sent to Continental:

I am very sad to be writing this email to you both, but I very much need your help. I am writing this email on the Explorer of the Seas, which is at sea and due into Newark tomorrow morning.

I received tragic news from my mother yesterday — my aunt and uncle have both been shot and killed. As you can imagine, my entire family is reeling from this tragedy, and there is nothing I want more than to be home with them.

Our original intention on this vacation was to stay a few days in New York City before returning home to Austin. Understandably, I no longer want to do that. I have no option other than staying on this ship until we return to Newark, but once back on land I would like to take the first available flight home (preferably to Houston, where my family is).

I have contacted Continental reservations to try to change my flights, and was told that I could not return to Houston without buying a new ticket, and changing my return to Austin would cost close to $700 for the three of us.

I am a travel agent and I’m aware that those are your rules and that your contract of carriage supports the $700 charge. However, I’m afraid that at the tail end of a two week vacation, my family simply does not have $700 to spare right now. I am at your mercy to get home to my family as soon as possible. Please help me.

Under normal circumstances the death of a relative wouldn’t qualify for a waiver of an airline’s strict nonrefundability rules. But these were tragic circumstances (Stewart shared some of the details with me privately, and I am certain that Continental felt the same way).

Stewart followed my advice and send a polite letter to two Continental executives. Here’s the response:

Please allow me to first express our deepest sympathy in the tragic loss of your loved ones. I have booked you for travel from Newark to Houston on tomorrow March 6, 2009 flight 811 this flight leaves Newark at 3pm and arrives into Houston at 6:04 pm.

I have booked your daughter and husband on a return flight on tomorrow March 6, 2009 flight 450 leaves Newark at 2:15 pm and arrives in Austin at 5:33 pm.

I have waived all fees as a gesture of goodwill.

Wow. It’s comforting to know that people with compassion are still in charge at Continental. It’s just a matter of finding them, says Stewart.

Because of your column, I knew exactly where to turn for the contact info of someone who could help me, and I knew to tell them exactly what I wanted.

Not only had I called Continental once from the ship, but my co-worker had called their travel agent desk for me twice…all three times we were told it would be almost $700, and there was no way to change my destination city. Without the email addresses on your site, I am confident that I would not have made it home on Friday.

Nice work, Continental.

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