“Even though some folks might not believe it, airlines have a heart”

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By Christopher Elliott

Here’s a case with a happy-ish ending that involves one of the most complained-about airlines flying: American Airlines.

Well, technically, it’s about US Airways, but since it’s merged with American, the company is one big happy family. More or less.

Denied refund in a time of crisis

It comes to us by way of Mike Evans, who had planned to fly from Philadelphia to Las Vegas with his wife’s brother, Brian McGarvey, and his wife, Francis. Last summer, they were planning to tour several national parks, including the Grand Canyon.

But in July, Francis fell ill and had surgery. Doctors would not allow her to travel.

“Her situation still has not improved,” he says. “She is unable to work, is rarely able to leave her home and is still under a doctor’s care. I provided letters from her doctor in September and a letter from her surgeon in January.”

Evans says he tried to handle the situation as professionally as possible.

“We asked our travel agent to cancel as promptly as possible to give the airline an opportunity to resell the seats,” he notes. “A senior agent at the travel agency said she would request a refund.”

The airline’s response? A standard, “You have one year to use the tickets.”

Southwest Airlines is dedicated to the highest quality of customer service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to providing our employees with a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Evans appealed the denial, saying he would be happy to use the tickets if he could change the name and allow a healthy friend to use the credit. (As you can imagine, that, too, was denied.)

Over the holidays, Francis’ conditioned worsened, and Evans tried to appeal again. He reached a compassionate reservations agent who urged him to fax the documentation to the airline. She told him, “Even though some folks might not believe it, airlines have a heart.”

Airline policies vs. human compassion

That is both easy to believe – and difficult. Airline agents do have a heart – after all, they’re only human – but airline policies, which are created to maximize a company’s revenue, generally do not have a heart. Employees can be terminated for waiving even a small rule, and they know it.

My resolutions team worked with Evans to try to get more than the “tough luck” answer. And we did – sorta. Initial appeals were ignored, but finally a letter to the CEO resulted in a call from a supervisor.

“She wanted to speak directly with Brian or Francis, to hear from them that they could not travel and that I could not speak for them,” he remembers. “I got Brian on the phone and she asked several questions and then she let him go.”

Here’s what the airline offered:

1. Waive the $150 fee per ticket if they would book and travel within the month. Not possible.

2. Extend the tickets to the purchase date, allowing travel before September, but with a fee of $150 per ticket. Also unlikely.

3. Allow a name change to the tickets, good for a year, but again with a $150 fee per ticket.

Airline compassion or cold-hearted ploy

Evans was hoping to get all of the $931 back on compassionate grounds.

“I lobbied hard for a refund and even harder to waive the fees, but she would not budge,” he says. “She put me on hold to check with her supervisor, but she would not yield.”

My advocacy team and I think American’s offer is better than average. It apparently believes the McGarveys should have purchased a refundable fare if they thought they might want to change their reservation, but that’s a little disingenuous. Unrestricted fares, which are meant to be purchased by business travelers on an expense account, typically cost three to four times more than a garden-variety ticket.

Why can’t American change the name on a ticket? Well, it can, but does it really cost the airline $150 to process that kind of transaction? Only in a-la-carte fee utopia. (Here’s our guide to booking an airline ticket.)

I’m heartened that American would try to help these customers, who obviously will never be able to use their ticket as they intended to. But is this a genuine offer of compassion or a cold-hearted ploy to take even more of this family’s money?

Did American offer the McGarvey’s enough compensation?

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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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