Can’t fly after emergency appendectomy — how about a refund?

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By Christopher Elliott

If you’ve ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes when a case comes in, let me offer a little glimpse. The email goes to a group of trusted advisors and … we argue.

Is it a valid claim? Are the rules being followed? Do we have a paper trail?

And when we can’t agree on something, then it becomes a Tuesday post: Can this trip be saved?

All of which brings us to Ruth Ann Wulff’s case. The situation, she explains, has been dragging on for six months, and it involves her husband. Just before a recent family vacation from Sacramento, Calif., to Cancun, Mexico, to celebrate her 70th birthday, her husband had to have an emergency appendectomy.

Obviously, he couldn’t take the flight on US Airways. “I sent all of the medical information to verify his operation including a no-fly letter from the doctor,” she says.

Unyielding refund policies amid health crises

An airline representative agreed to US Airways’ standard terms: a ticket credit which could be used up to a year from the date of a booking, minus a $200 change fee and any fare differential. The representative assured her US Airways was sympathetic to the family’s health woes.

Airline credit dilemma

But then things took a turn for the worse. Wulff herself began experiencing health problems, and her husband’s condition didn’t improve. Soon, it became clear that they’d never be able to take advantage of the US Airways ticket credit.

Wulff asked US Airways for a full refund, considering her circumstances. The response? Well, I’m sure you can guess.

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“I’m sorry you were unable to travel with US as planned to Cancun,” a representative wrote. “I realize that a sudden illness might cause an unforeseen change. I understand your frustration; however, I’m unable to honor your request to refund your husband’s non-refundable ticket.”

Wulff’s husband would have to die before US Airways would part with its money, and even then, there’s no guarantee it would.

Case closed? Well, I was initially inclined to say so. Half of our mediation team says Wulff deserved to lose the credit. After all, if she’d wanted to hedge her bets, she could have purchased a refundable fare (alas, those cost about four times more than a regular non-refundable ticket) or at least taken out a travel insurance policy, which would have covered an emergency appendectomy.

But some team members disagreed with that assessment. US Airways, they argued, should show some compassion for a family that will probably never be able to fly again. Some of them have relatives to whom similar things have happened, and wish an advocate had been able to step in and recover a much-needed refund.

I feel as if I’m being pulled in two directions on this one. I want to help, but I also know what US Airways’ likely response will be: “Wulff knew the rules, or should have known the rules, and we’re very sorry, but so should you. Why ask us to waive our own rules? It wouldn’t be fair to the thousands of other passengers with sob stories who don’t contact you.”

Rules, empowerment and ethical gray areas

And that would be correct.

At the same time, airlines don’t always follow their own rules. It’s something that’s euphemistically referred to as “employee empowerment,” or the ability to push a button and make a ticket change fee go away or grant a passenger an upgrade. (Following her lung cancer diagnoses, a reader requests a refund for her non-refundable airline ticket.)

They don’t even follow the laws of the land, sometimes. Browse through the Transportation Department’s enforcement orders if you don’t believe me. Here’s US Airways failing to comply with the Air Carrier Access Act, for example. (Here’s how to get a refund on a non-refundable airline ticket.)

I feel reluctant to encourage US Airways to do something it doesn’t have to do, but probably should do. I know I’ll get into trouble with the “rules are rules” readers, but something tells me they might be wrong on this one.

By the way, if you’re interested in joining our mediation team, please apply to become one of our volunteers. I have to warn you: We get a lot of help requests, so I hope you don’t mind getting emails.

Should I mediate Ruth Ann Wulff's case?

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Update (1/28): My resolutions team sent Wulff a list of US Airways executives. She contacted one of them with her story, and here’s the outcome:

One of the names you provided, I e-mailed him and he had his secretary call me. US Air is going to give me a voucher for my husband’s monies. But they are still charging a fee of $150 (because we couldn’t fly before Jan 11, 2014) instead of the $200.00 they originally wrote me about. So that is a $50 savings.

There is approximately a $500 voucher for us to use with them before January 2015. It is transferable so I guess that is good. I would of rather had the cash and be done with this company. Oh well, I thank you for the names of executives to help. It worked, I did hear from someone other than the usual people booking flights because no one can talk with people in customer service except their own people.

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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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