Help! United Airlines refunded everything but my travel agency is keeping half the money

When Maxine Goldsmith received a full refund from United Airlines, she expected to receive, you know, a full refund. She didn’t.

And now she wants to know if a business can keep your money simply because of a policy that says it can keep your money. It’s a question that’s come up a time or two on this site, and I have an answer. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Back in October, Goldsmith and her adult daughter booked two tickets from Newark to Cancún on United. They purchased the tickets through a travel agency, International Travel Network (ITN).

Total cost: $1,727.

Then the Zika outbreak happened. Goldsmith’s daughter is pregnant. “Her doctor told her to cancel the trip,” she says.

United waived its refund rules, allowing passengers to cancel their flights after the Zika scare, a highly unusual and compassionate gesture.

The airline refunded her ticket, which came to $912, sending the money to ITN. Not so fast, said ITN — before we can refund any of the money to you, we need to see a doctor’s note confirming you’re pregnant. Her daughter sent a letter.

“An ITN agent told her that half of ITN’s ticket portion, $407 would be refunded,” she says.

Huh? Only half?

Here’s the outrageous part: Goldsmith and her daughter even purchased travel insurance, just in case. Given that United refunded ITN, why would it keep the money?

“I believe that the remaining cost of the tickets should be refunded,” she says.

If you think this kind of thing never happens, think again. A few years ago, I mediated Nartach Djepbarova’s case. He had to cancel a Delta Air Lines flight after having jaw surgery.

“It processed my refund, but told me they had sent the money back to my travel agency,” he said. “I contacted the agency and asked it for the refund, but they refused, citing their refund policy.”

The agency had no business keeping Djepbarova’s money. I contacted Delta on his behalf and asked if it could put in a good word with the agency. The agency coughed up the $1,771 refund.

It’s not just bricks-and-mortar agents keeping airfares. Online agencies also pocket people’s money.

Consider what happened to Serban Constantinescu when he received a refund from Quality Airport Hotel Dan in Copenhagen.

He’d missed a flight connection from Cleveland to New York because of bad weather, and was a no-show at check-in time.

But when he phoned the Quality Airport Hotel Dan, it let him off the hook. “We will cancel the reservation and will not charge a cancellation fee,” a representative told him. He even was able to get their promise in writing.

The agency sent a refund to Otel.com. But it refused to return the money to Constantinescu.

“We are really sorry,” an Otel.com representative wrote. “As much as we want to issue a refund, we are bound by the hotel’s terms and conditions so we do not have any control over the charges associated with the reservation.”

As I mentioned then, I know there are some well-meaning agents out there who will argue that a travel agency’s policy trumps that of a supplier. Telling a customer “tough luck” also allows an agent to protect any commissions and bonuses earned through the booking, and after all, agents aren’t running a charity, are they?

But I believe that if a hotel or airline is refunding the money to a travel agency, then the agency has a moral obligation to send the refund back to the customer’s credit card. I can’t imagine any scenario under which an agency (online or otherwise) should be able to pocket a hotel charge or airfare.

After a credit card dispute, Constantinescu’s $282 was refunded.

All of which brings us back to Goldsmith. Before I get involved in this case, I’d love to hear from anyone who thinks ITN deserves half the ticket refund. I’m trying to understand the reason behind such a policy. What service did ITN provide that costs $407? If it’s a legitimate charge, I want to try to understand it.

If not, ITN needs to offer Goldsmith’s daughter a prompt refund. I’m ready to help.

Should I take Maxine Goldsmith’s case?

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