No refund for a sick United passenger?

Question: Last year, my husband and I bought round-trip tickets to fly from Pittsburgh to Houston on United Airlines.

A few weeks later, my husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor. We originally thought he could still make the trip, but after his biopsy, it was clear he couldn’t go. His doctor wrote a letter stating that he had advised canceling this trip.

United was very sympathetic at first, and said that they would issue a full refund. They asked me to send a request through their website. I received an email a week later, saying they would allow us to cancel the ticket, pay a $50 change fee per ticket, and have up to a year to rebook the flights.

I called United and they said that they could either waive the $50 re-booking fee, or refund my husband’s part of the reservation. I sent an email back to the airline explaining that we’d like a refund of our nonrefundable tickets.

Quite honestly, my husband is currently in the how-bad-is-bad stage of the diagnosis process. There is no treatment plan yet. It is brain cancer. We have no plans to travel anywhere for the foreseeable future.

Is this something that you would be interested in helping us sort out? — Susan Fuhrman, Pittsburgh

Answer: I’m sorry to hear about your husband’s condition. At a time like this, United should show some compassion — or, at the very least, be consistent in its responses to you.

The rules of your ticket purchase are not in question. If you cancel your flight, you can rebook for up to a year from the date of your booking, minus a change fee and any fare differential. That rule renders many airline tickets worthless, because the change fee and fare differential is greater than the ticket credit, but it is an industry standard among the legacy carriers.

But rules are meant to be bent. As a matter of policy, United will refund a nonrefundable ticket if you die or if the person you’re traveling with dies. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. I’ve seen airlines balk at refunding tickets even when they’re shown a death certificate.

Why are airlines so strict? Because the rule makes money. For years, passengers could get a change fee waived for any reason, or any excuse. Finally, the airline industry clamped down on this loophole with a new policy called “no waivers, no favors.”

United’s first response was correct. When a representative offers a refund, be sure to get their name and extension, and if possible, ask them to send you an email documenting the promise. Sending a request through the website — a necessary first step in resolving many airline grievances — almost always results in a by-the-book form response.

Then United gave you yet another answer in a follow-up phone conversation. Pretty confusing, isn’t it?

I think you would have been better off keeping your refund request in writing. After the form rejection, you could have responded to a manager (I list their names on my customer service wiki, onyoursi.de/wiki) and provided any medical documentation necessary.

I contacted United on your behalf. It agreed to offer you a refund, minus a $50 “processing fee,” which was a better offer, but still not quite the refund you were hoping for. But when you called United, it agreed to waive all of the fees and issue a full refund.

Here’s wishing your husband a quick recovery.

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