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

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By Christopher Elliott

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.

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.

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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)

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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 Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Los Angeles.

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