US Airways tells customer her cancer isn’t terminal enough for a refund

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By Christopher Elliott

Ben Coleman and his wife were supposed to fly from New York to Oakland last November on US Airways. The couple had purchased nonrefundable roundtrip tickets on US Airways for just under $1,000.

But in October, Coleman’s wife was diagnosed with cancer.

“Her diagnosis is positive and the doctors tell us — nothing is certain, of course — that it will be a hard year, but expect that she will lead a long healthy life.”

That’s when things got a little complicated.

Coleman explains,

I called US Airways to cancel my ticket and hope for a refund. This was several weeks before my travel dates.

I was told that because I bought a non-refundable ticket there was nothing that they could do except issue me credit that would be good for one year from the ticket purchase date.

They also informed me that due to rebooking fees and other fees, the actual amount of my credit would be much less than my original purchase price. This is, of course, pretty unhelpful as there is no chance we are flying anywhere before this credit expires.

I was told that I can email their customer service desk to appeal.

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He did appeal, in writing. US Airways asked for documentation of his wife’s condition, a process that took several weeks. After submitting the paperwork, the airline rejected his refund request.

I was told on the phone that they only refund tickets in cases of terminal cancer.

Are you kidding me?

I get their super strict policy — I did buy a non-refundable ticket — but why make me go to my wife’s doctor, waste his time, and the precious time I have with him, and ask him for this favor, if you’re just going to reject it?

Coleman wants me to see if US Airways will reconsider its decision, and I’m tempted to.

Compassion vs. nonrefundable ticket rules

Here’s how the conversation is likely to go: I’ll ask US Airways to take a look at the case, and it will ask if I’m aware that Coleman could have purchased a more expensive, flexible ticket. And I will ask the airline how much such a ticket would cost, and then we’ll get into a debate over whether it’s fair or reasonable for someone to pay three times more for a ticket just to be able to change a date or get a refund. (Related: Mom died, but US Airways won’t refund my fee.)

It’s an unwinnable argument.

What puzzles me about this case is that a US Airways representative actually told Coleman that his wife’s cancer needed to be “terminal” in order for her to get a refund. Isn’t it enough that she’s going to be suffering through chemotherapy treatments for the rest of the year, and that the ticket credit will certainly be unused? (Here’s how to get a refund on a nonrefundable airline ticket.)

Like Coleman, I understand that nonrefundable means nonrefundable. But come on. Passengers cut airlines some slack when they can’t operate a flight for reasons beyond their control. It’s not as if the Colemans thought it was possible they’d have to cancel their trip for medical reasons.

Should I mediate Ben Coleman's case with US Airways?

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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. He is based in Panamá City.

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