Southwest Airlines responds to needy passenger with compassion – why won’t US Airways?

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By Christopher Elliott

When you’re in my line of work, you hear your share of sob stories. Few are as tragic as Charley Price’s, and few have as frustrating an outcome.

His story starts with the death of his wife’s father last summer, only two months after Price’s mother-in-law had passed away.

“We were initially led to believe from family that a delay in scheduling a family funeral for both parents was going to happen at a later date, but with less than two weeks notice we were informed that the funeral service was being scheduled for both parents on July 14.”

Because of scheduling difficulties, Price and his wife had to book two sets of one-way tickets from Minneapolis to El Paso, Texas: one on Southwest Airlines, the other on US Airways.

US Airways refuses compassion

“Unfortunately, the severe illness of my wife the evening before our planned travel required hospitalization, forcing us to cancel our air travel plans and miss the funeral service.”

I can’t imagine the grief of losing two parents, followed by the hardship of a severe illness.

You would expect an airline to be sympathetic to the Prices, particularly if they could show a death certificate and a doctor’s note. (Related: Southwest canceled my flight! Where is my refund for my EarlyBird fees?)

Price explains what happened next:

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

I immediately called US Airways to cancel our scheduled trip and explained what happened.

The agent dutifully cancelled our travel plans, and was quick to state we had one year to use the tickets from date of issue, plus any additional airfare and a minimum $150 per person reissue fee.

I explained the unforeseen medical emergency and asked that the reissue fee be waived.

I was informed that US Airways does not allow refunds for non-refundable tickets and would enforce the reissue fee. The combined reissue fee of $150 per person ($300 total for my wife and I) nearly matched our original one-way airfare of $440.

It was quite the contrast with Southwest.

When I called Southwest to cancel and stated what happened, the person on the phone could not have been more gracious and expressed concern for my wife.

The agent stated that I had one year from date of issue to use our non-refundable tickets and any additional airfare.

Expecting the worst, I asked if there were any additional fees and was told no. To make sure I specifically asked if there was a reissue fee and again I was told no.

US Airways’ strict policies leave grieving passenger disheartened

OK, we could get into a debate about US Airways and Southwest and fees, but I think there are two noteworthy takeaways here.

First, the US Airways representative could have expressed some sympathy for Price, which costs nothing.

Second, both US Airways and Southwest should have had a notation in Price’s reservation that he was flying on a bereavement fare. Combined with his other personal circumstances, it wouldn’t be unusual for them to offer a full refund. (Here’s our guide to resolving your consumer problem.)

(Passengers cut airlines a break when circumstances “beyond their control” force them to cancel a flight. If ever there was a time for a little quid pro quo, this would be it, don’t you think?)

Price appealed to a supervisor and then put his request in writing. Unfortunately, it came back with the same response.

Dear Mr. Price:

Though I understand your situation, I must adhere to established policies which do not allow for refunds of non-refundable tickets, even due to medical circumstances.

You have one year from the date of issue to complete travel.

My advocacy team and I thought Price’s case was worth a second look. After all, he wasn’t flying to El Paso on vacation, and he missed the flight because of circumstances beyond his control.

US Airways didn’t respond to my request.

No question about it, US Airways did what it had to, contractually speaking. It isn’t required to do any more. But was this an appropriate response to a passenger in need?

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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. He is based in Panamá City.

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