This case can’t be solved: They charged $5,900 for a one-way ticket in economy class to fly to my mother’s funeral

Walk-up fares are some of the most flexible — and pricey — airline tickets. But corner any airline employee at a party, and they’ll admit these super-high, unrestricted fares, which are purchased at the last minute, are meant to be paid by business travelers on an expense account.

Not passengers like Dina Bennett. And yet South African Airlines charged her $5,900 for a one-way, economy class ticket from Namibia back to San Diego, so she could attend her mother’s funeral recently.

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Bennett though she’d get to fly in business class, at that price. But she had to sit in the back of the plane. And that doesn’t sit right with her.

She writes,

I have been in correspondence with SAA since then, requesting re-evaluation of what surely must have been the highest fare they could possibly charge for a one-way economy class seat.

I am asking them for consideration of the fact that I had no choice in booking this last-minute itinerary, that it was a family emergency, and that surely a different fare could have been used. For instance, if SAA had given me a RT fare, I would, according to their website, have paid half of what I actually did pay. And I am asking for reimbursement of whatever the difference would be between the fare I paid and what I should have paid.

SAA continues to stonewall me with responses and comments that are irrelevant to my situation. By comparison, I also have contacted Continental Airlines, with whom I had the return portion of my original air ticket, which as a result of the death, was unused. My ticket with Continental was non-refundable. Nevertheless, given the circumstances, they have promptly refunded the entire unused portion of my ticket.

Here’s a typical response from the airline:

At outset we sorry to hear about your loss.

There is no place for poor staff behavior in a customer-service environment as we have identified improved customer service as a strategic issue that has to be addressed to ensure our transformation into a successful airline. Staff members must be customer orientated at all times and act in line with the South African hospitality.

Our challenge is to ensure that our customers’ experience measures up to the standard that they have come to expect and deserve. Please accept and convey our sincere apologies to your mother for the poor service she experienced.

According to our records you travelled already, and we do not have a bereavement fare in this instance we are unable to accede to your request for reimbursement.

Once again, we extend our apologies for the inconvenience caused. Thank you for taking the time to bring this matter to our attention. Your support of our airline is highly valued.

What a strange reply, on a number of levels.

In my experience, airlines rarely offer bereavement fares and it’s even rarer that they refund fare differences when a customer has paid a walk-up fare. Still, I think SAA could have given her a better answer.

So I asked the airline. Here’s what it sent to her:

Thank you for contacting us about your past travel. I understand that you have already communicated with our Head Office in Johannesburg. On behalf of everyone here at South African Airways, please accept our deepest sympathy for your recent loss.

I am truly sorry for the challenges you faced while purchasing a ticket at the last moment. We looked into the fare you purchased and the fares available for that day.

One thing it is important to note is that, while we have a full range of fares to fit many different travel needs, we do not have a specific “bereavement” or “compassion” fare. Our records show that you purchased a one-way ticket for travel from Walvis Bay, Namibia, to San Francisco, and that this ticket was sold to you in Namibia.

There is no discounted fare offered for one-way travel, and so you were sold the standard one-way fare as requested. While SAA does offer fares that are lower than the fare you purchased, those discounted fares are based on round-trip travel and are typically non-refundable.

Given these circumstances, we are unable to counteract the rules of the fare you purchased, as it was the appropriate one-way fare. Therefore, we must respectfully decline your request for a refund of any fare difference for travel.

Just as I thought.

Walk-up fares are meant to ensnare those who can afford them — business travelers who have no flexibility in their schedules, and are willing to pay four or five times more than the advance-purchase fare. But Bennett should have negotiated any special considerations before she flew back to San Diego, not after her trip.

Sadly, this case can’t be solved.

(Photo: kalantz iscope/Flickr Creative Commons)

4 thoughts on “This case can’t be solved: They charged $5,900 for a one-way ticket in economy class to fly to my mother’s funeral

  1. This is a good example of why it’s good to buy a RT ticket even if you’re only flying one way.
    I’m positively astounded that someone at SA told the customer to apologize to her deceased mother.
    As for the fare, there is NO EXCUSE whatever for ANY airline not have a bereavement fare or a compassion-motivated one. The last paragraph alone is a black mark on what I know is an otherwise fine airline. The absence of says only that the airline has no compunction about preying on the bereaved.

  2. The passenger is mostly at fault…..Shop around – it doesn’t take that long —
    Last minute fare necessary, yes, but there is still even a little time to walk over to different airline ticket counters or phone them and find a way to get a lower fare….
    Different routing ?,  different airline up through Europe,  buy a roundtrip ticket, etc.
    This is also a case of lazy, poorly trained agents who should know how to search in the computer for the lowest fares and routings even if it means directing someone to another airline – instead they just offer the first thing that pops up in the computer – no compassion, no effort to think out of the box.  SAA should be ashamed.  I took work around such lazy, uniformed, ill-trained agents – disgusting —
    Signed, customer service agent, United States.

  3. Why didn’t she buy a round trip ticket?  Also didn’t she have any word about a family problem brewing? If she did, booking a ticket in advance & then cancelling if not needed would have worked. My beloved mother was very ill and near death. I had booked a flight for the next morning. At 10 pm her doctor said I wasn’t needed. So, foolishly I cancelled my trip. At 4 am I got the calll to catch the next flight.  So, I had to pay full fare too. Not knowing the return date,  I was stuck.                     In my case, I could have cancelled the trip at the last moment. No charge. I did and circumstances changed.  My stupdity cost me.   But a few weeks later, I had a flight leaving ORD at 7 am for WPB. The NW plane slid off the runway. There was lots of scrambling and I should have joined those who ran to get other flights. My mother was in her last few hours. I waited around.  The original plane didn’t arrive until 6 pm & I didn’t get home until 7 pm.  Mother was just going into a coma.  Perhaps she knew I was there.            My points are to book ahead if at all possible and cancel only at the last moment.  Also, if at an airport and something happens to your scheduled flight, hustle around.  You should be able to get another seat leaving  in the next hour or two.

    I didn’t blame Delta in the first case. You make the point that people often have to go somewhere quickly.  Trying to plan ahead is a good play.

  4. This is typical of a spoiled American. She thinks that every company will give courtesy credit like in America. She shouldn’t purchase the ticket in the first place if she can’t afford it. She shouldn’t file complain and asks credit because it’s too expensive after she used the ticket.

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