How “special” do your circumstances have to be for a refund?

No question about it, airlines have some of the most restrictive rules in American business. In the travel industry, nothing compares to the fine print in an airfare.

So it was no surprise that a story about a reader who wanted to talk Southwest Airlines into a refund for two bridesmaids was one of our most visited stories in the recent past.

The story sparked an interesting debate about refunds and name changes, but it also hinted at an issue that frustrates many consumers, and particularly readers of this site. It’s that airlines impose all kinds of strict rules only to selectively break them. And the question is: Why are they the only ones who can bend a rule?

How “special” do your circumstances have to be for a refund?

That’s an answerable question. I’ve asked airline executives. Pressed them for an answer. We all know that even the strictest airline rules can be bent or broken when the company wants. What prompts them?

Airline #1 is a large legacy carrier based in the south, and when I asked one of its managers, I remember the VP of customer service repeating the phrase: “We want to do the right thing.” That’s a good answer, but not a specific one. Does she mean right for the airline? If so, then we should have an absolute “no waivers, no favors” policy.

But that’s not what she meant. Rather, “right” is a guiding principle to selectively waive the carrier’s rules because it seems like the correct thing to do. That may account for the scarcity of complaints we receive from the carrier.

Airline #2 is a large legacy carrier in the Midwest. Its executives mentioned that their M.O. was “fairness.”

“We want to make sure all of our rules are applied in an evenhanded way,” a VP said.

Again, that makes me wonder: Fair to whom? Unfortunately, the answer was: fair to the airline. And that did, indeed, mean throwing the rulebook in their customers’ faces with great frequency. The company’s complaint record proves it.

As a sidenote, I can’t stand it when companies hijack words like “fair” and “right” to their own ends. The rhetoric is meant to make employees and airline apologists feel better. But to passengers who really need help – yet are informed that a refund would not be “fair” to other customers – the words ring hollow.

Finally, airline #3: The largest of the legacy carriers I interviewed. An executive said rules get waived on a “case by case” basis, and that a compelling story was necessary. And, the exec added with a wink, “we’ve heard ‘em all before – so good luck.”

This was by far the most troubling response because it suggested that “right” and “fair” don’t even matter. Rather, the burden is on you to come up with a good enough story (whether it’s true or not). Of course, this airline also gets the most complaints.

I believe all of these answers are incorrect. In fact, the entire premise – that somehow, passengers should be appealing to an airline for compassion when circumstances beyond their control force them to cancel a trip – is wrong.

We shouldn’t have to ask an airline to be right or fair. In a competitive market, the invisible hand should write tickets with reasonable fare rules. Yet anyone who thinks the current airline industry is competitive is drinking the airline lobby’s Kool-Aid.

Lift the country’s antiquated cabotage laws and then we’ll talk about competition.

Anyway, it seems pretty clear that airlines won’t waive their ridiculously restrictive fare rules unless you say the magic word or do a song and dance, and that really shouldn’t be necessary. It’s time for something to be done.

The airline industry can’t tell the difference between right and wrong. The free market has failed. Perhaps it’s time for more legislative measures.

Should ticket refunds be more carefully regulated?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

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.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Send this to a friend