No name change on a dead passenger’s ticket?

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By Christopher Elliott

After Robin Johnson’s husband is killed in a tragic accident, she tries to salvage his United Airlines ticket credit. But the carrier says it can’t change the name on a ticket – it’s against the rules. Is there any hope for her?

Question

Last year my husband canceled a flight on United Airlines and received a ticket credit. A few months later, he was killed in a hit and run accident.

I have had a difficult time even focusing on things. I sent United an email a few weeks after his death, but months before his ticket credit was to have expired. Unfortunately, I received a standard automated response that they would get back to me within 10 days on my refund request.

Actually, I wasn’t even asking for a refund. I was asking, under the circumstances, that maybe they could reissue the ticket to me so that I could use it. I supplied them with all the documentation they requested and required. Unfortunately, I still have not heard from them. Can you help? — Robin Johnson, Sherman Oaks, Calif.

Answer

I’m so sorry for your loss. Airlines routinely refund even non-refundable tickets when passengers die. But your request came during the last part of the merger between Continental Airlines and United Airlines, and it involved switching to a different reservation system for the company.

So, while the representatives you repeatedly contacted may have wanted to transfer the name on your deceased husband’s ticket to yours, it may have been difficult, if not impossible.

If you’d simply sent United a copy of your husband’s death certificate and a request for a refund, then you probably wouldn’t have waited three months for a resolution. But I get the sense that you were trying to play fair. The ticket was canceled, and according to the rules, you were entitled to a credit, not a refund.

A gesture of compassion for a grieving widow

But those aren’t United’s only rules. It also doesn’t change the name on a ticket. The only exceptions I know of are large corporations that buy millions of dollars worth of tickets on one airline. Their contracts might allow for a name change, so that if an employee is reassigned or terminated, the ticket can be reissued under another employee’s name. Alas, you had no such contract you could invoke.(Related: The death of a customer doesn’t guarantee survivors a refund.)

By asking for a name transfer – by trying to minimize United’s loss – you were confusing the airline. I guess no good deed goes unpunished. (Here’s how to get a refund on non-refundable airline ticket.)

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Even when I brought this case to United’s attention, it had some trouble understanding what was happening, and said that your dead spouse should receive a full refund for his ticket (technically, his next of kin should get it, which would be you).

A representative told you your husband’s ticket was “non-refundable and therefore non-transferable,” but that the airline sometimes made exceptions to its rules. This was one of its times. United agreed to transfer your husband’s credit to you.

Are airline name change rules too strict?

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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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