She had a stroke and can’t fly — should her airline waive the $150 change fee?

And now, a follow-up to yesterday’s post about reservation change fees. Passengers are upset about these surcharges, which often reduce the value of their ticket credit to just a few dollars. Airline apologists call the fees a “proven revenue model” that will continue for as long as people fly.

But there’s a glimmer of hope for air travelers.

Consider what happened to Norma Goldwyn, who abruptly canceled her flight from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to New York on Delta Air Lines last month because of health problems. Goldwyn asked her travel agent for a refund, and was told Delta would only offer her a ticket credit, minus a $150 change fee, which would have left her with a $59 voucher.

Delta charged an astounding $406 million in reservation change fees last year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. (Only American Airlines collected more in 2009.) In the first quarter of 2010, Delta collected $165 million in change fees, which means that if the current trend holds, it will have extracted $660 million from its customers this year. That would be a new record.

But where does the business model end and compassion begin? Goldwyn had every intention of making her flight, but couldn’t. It was an event beyond her control — what airlines might call a force majeure event, or an act of God. Airlines aren’t responsible for these events, according to their contracts of carriage. Should her health problem have cost her $150?

I suggested she appeal the decision with a brief, polite email to a manager at Delta. Here’s what she wrote:

I booked a ticket on Delta for a round trip flight to LaGuardia in NYC from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. I was leaving on Flight #1698 on July 19, 2010, returning on flight #2879 on July 27, 2010.

Unfortunately and unexpectedly, I was hospitalized at Holy Cross Hospital, Ft. Lauderdale on Saturday, July 3, 2010, diagnosed with having suffered a stroke which completely paralyzed my right hand. I was discharged on Tuesday, July 6, and that week I was scheduled into a month long therapy program at the hospital.

Obviously, I had to cancel my flight plans. I called my travel agent at AAA Travel in Pompano Beach and cancelled my travel plans, explaining to her what had happened. I told her I could get copies of hospital and doctor verification if needed. Since I had not insured the flight I was told that I might suffer a penalty.

When booking a tour or a flight that includes a hotel or land I always purchase insurance. But the ones I make to a friend in NYC and to my son in Chicago haven’t been insured since there were no land expenses which increases the cost of the trips on a single ticket.

I emailed AAA on Aug. 19 as I had expected to see a credit on my AMEX statement by then. The following is a copy of the answer I received
from AAA:

“I am glad you are feeling better. You will not receive a credit on your amex card, the ticket is held and it has a credit amount on it of $59.40. The total ticket was $209 but it had a penalty of $150 so that leaves a credit of $59.40 to be applied to a new ticket within a year.”

Needless to say, I am shocked by the amount of a $150 penalty on a $209 flight. Is this a final decision? I’m looking for your help in this

To which she received the following response:

I sincerely apologize for your displeasure with the fee to change your ticket. I am also sorry to learn of the circumstances preventing travel and hope this message finds you well.

I am truly sorry you were unable to use your nonrefundable ticket as planned and appreciate the opportunity to review this matter with you. I fully recognize the delicate circumstances you encountered with your health during that time. Due to your special circumstances, I have made a one-time exception to waive the change fee for [your] ticket.

Ms. Goldwyn, I want to thank you, again, for taking the time to bring this matter to our attention and for the opportunity to review your request. Your future business is important to us, and I hope you will continue to choose Delta for your air travel needs.

Goldwyn is happy with this resolution.

I am so pleased that they are crediting this ticket, to be used with them on a future flight. I can’t thank you enough for your quick response and advice to my problem. I’m sure you can chalk this up to another successful solution on your part!

Well, no, Norma — that was all you. But thanks for letting me know.

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Delta did the right thing. But should it have done this and other similar cases as a matter of policy, or as an exception?

I ran a poll for two hours this morning, from about 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. With more than 300 respondents to this multiple-choice survey, here are the results:

Thank you, everyone, for participating.

(Photo: Joe h olmes/Flickr Creative Commons)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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