No hope for an airline ticket refund – or is there?

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By Christopher Elliott

When Kathy Stickney’s niece must return home early to be with her ailing father, she must forfeit an American Airlines ticket. But is that fair?

Question

I’m trying to help my sister get a refund on her daughter’s non-refundable airline ticket. Her daughter went to Spain in January as an exchange student. Her return was scheduled for May 29th.

When my sister, her husband and son went to Spain to visit her, my brother-in-law was rushed to the hospital. He had been hospitalized for over a week until he was stable enough to fly back to Boston. They weren’t sure that he would survive, so my niece went home earlier than expected.

My sister could really use the refund to help pay medical bills.

I looked at American’s web page and it said there are exceptions to the non-refundable ticket. I thought this would apply to my sister’s flight. When I called American Airlines I was told that it would cost $250 to exchange the ticket, but the ticket was only worth $87. The ticket was virtually worthless.

An American representative asked if I wanted to cancel the ticket. I told her not to do it yet. Is there anything else I can do to help get the price of the ticket back? — Kathy Stickney, Las Vegas

Answer

I’m sorry to hear about your brother-in-law, and glad he made it. Like other airlines, American rarely makes exceptions to its nonrefundability rule. The only time it consistently does so, in my experience, is when a passenger dies.

Airlines say they offer “options” for travelers who want more flexibility, but they aren’t practical. Your niece would have had to pay at least double for her ticket if she wanted the option of a refund. She could have always paid extra for a “boarding and flexibility” package,” which would have allowed her to make a change for $75, but as a student, she probably didn’t have the budget to spring for that extra “perk.”

Securing a refund

So, to recap: American, like other airlines, makes it too expensive to buy a refundable fare and no one really thinks they’ll have to make a change to their ticket, so its option was impractical. They’ll only refund your niece’s ticket if she dies. So what’s a girl to do? (Related: A 20 percent credit for my American Airlines tickets? That’s insane.)

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I think this is one of those can’t win situations. You had only two choices: cancel the ticket and let American keep the money, or call me. (Here’s our guide on how to get a refund on a non-refundable airline ticket.)

I’m glad you picked door number two. Your niece didn’t have a case, at least as far as American’s rules are concerned. Neither did I. All I could do is ask the airline to consider making an exception to its refund policy.

I did – and it did. They refunded the ticket.

Are airline refund policies too inflexible?

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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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