Some airlines refunding tickets for passengers who fear pat-downs

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By Christopher Elliott

Sommer Gentry had plans to fly from Baltimore to Charlotte next month. But after she heard about the TSA’s invasive new scanning and pat-down procedures, she decided to cancel.

“I can not fly when these are the terms,” she says in an email to her airline, AirTran Airways.

Unfortunately, her tickets were nonrefundable. Accepting a ticket credit and paying a change fee isn’t an option for her, and many others like her who vow never to fly until TSA changes its policy.

Airline responses to the TSA pat-down problem range from inflexible to accommodating. I contacted five of the major airlines yesterday to find out if they planned to loosen their policies in response to the screening crisis. (Here’s how to handle the TSA when traveling.)

Here’s what I found:

American Airlines: no.

“Our refund rules that are in place now, apply,” says a spokeswoman. “If the customer has a refundable ticket, then we will refund. If the customer has a non-refundable ticket, then we can offer a voucher.”

Delta Air Lines: maybe.

“We will work with customers on a case-by-case basis,” a spokeswoman told me. “Obviously, it’s a non-issue if they purchased a refundable ticket.”

Southwest Airlines: no.

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“Southwest Airlines’ walk-up fares are fully refundable,” says a spokeswoman. “Our advance purchase fares are non-refundable but reusable within 12 months of first date of travel with no or rebooking or change fees. We are not refunding airfares specifically because a passenger cannot withstand the new government security procedures.”

United Airlines/Continental Airlines: no.

The airline didn’t respond to repeated queries, but its refund policy hasn’t changed on its site. In response to a passenger query, it wrote: “Since the TSA process is a federal mandate set for the safety of all passengers and not governed by United, we cannot offer a refund. You have the option to cancel a ticket using miles or purchase, however, the terms and conditions and all fees related to your ticket will apply.”

US Airways: no.

A spokesman responded to my query and asked for more time to research the issue. However, its refund policy on its site has not changed.

What about Gentry’s AirTran request? Well, here’s an excerpt from the email she sent to to the airline. I imagine it is just one of many that the airlines are receiving.

I can not fly when these are the terms. I do not know whether you can appreciate this, but as a woman, the idea of a powerful authority looking at my body through my clothes and handling my crotch is so traumatic that I am crying as I write this letter.

I am asking you to sympathize with my plight, and refund my purchase. I would never have bought this ticket if I had known that strip searches and sexual assault were to be an unavoidable part of my travel.

I also ask for your help in stopping the TSA’s unconscionable policy. Please, I beg AirTran Airways to make a public statement condemning the TSA for its unforgivable actions.

We’ve received complaints about AirTran Airways before. Here’s AirTran’s response:

Thank you for contacting AirTran Airways. I am sorry to learn of your distress, however, we thank you for allowing us the opportunity to address your concerns.

Please understand we no longer perform searches at any of the airports we service and, therefore, have no control over the manner in which security screening is conducted and the use of Advanced Screening Imaging. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is conducting this procedure and we are required to comply with TSA directives.

As this policy cannot be changed by AirTran Airways, we suggest you contact the TSA directly at either their hotline at 1.866.289.9673 or online at www.tsa.gov. There you can voice your feedback about this policy. Your understanding in this matter is appreciated.

However, as a goodwill gesture, I have documented your reservation and authorized the fee to be waived and a full credit issued. In order to cancel the flight, you must call reservations at 800-247-2428.

I would put AirTran in the “case by case” category, too, based on this response.

What do you think? A poll of more than 500 readers this morning found a narrow majority (59 percent) want airlines to refund tickets.

Update (11/23): A Delta spokeswoman contacted me this morning to clarify the airline’s refund policy. “It is an option we would explore for people with extenuating circumstances,” she told me, adding, “We have not made changes to our ticket policies.” My colleague Edward Hasbrouck also posted an interesting analysis of this issue, arguing that these unused tickets should be fully refundable.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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