The Travel Troubleshooter: Dead passengers can’t use a flight credit

Question: I recently booked a flight on Expedia from Dallas to Midland, Texas, with my wife. She died before we could make the trip. I canceled her ticket and applied for a refund through Expedia, the online agency through which I had booked the ticket.

I furnished all the requested documentation, including the death certificate. After not hearing anything from either Expedia or American Airlines, I called Expedia this week and was told that American had refused the refund.

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The reason given was that all American could do was issue a credit for a future flight. But since my wife wouldn’t be able to use the credit, they weren’t even going to do that.

Now, the amount involved isn’t going to break me, nor would it break American Airlines, but the bizarre reasoning for the refusal just smacks of lousy customer relations. On top of American’s poor attitude, Expedia never informed me of the refusal of the refund until I initiated the call.

Sure I’d like a refund but you can bet your bottom dollar I will never darken the door of either American or Expedia again. — David Walters, Plano, Texas

Answer: My condolences on the loss of your wife. Airlines routinely offer a full refund when a passenger dies, and your online travel agency should have been able to return your money when you sent it proof of your spouse’s passing.

The death of a passenger is one of the most common exceptions to the nonrefundability rule on airline tickets (the other is military orders). Once Expedia and American were informed of the event, the refund should have been more or less automatic.

Here’s the problem: There’s no rule that says your agency or airline must return the money. American Airlines’ contract of carriage, the legal agreement between you and the airline, doesn’t promise your money back. Neither does Expedia. It’s just something the companies do as a matter of policy, because as you suggested, it’s good customer service.

I have to admit; I’m a little puzzled by the offer of a credit. How do they expect your wife to take advantage of that?

The only reasonable explanation is that someone just wasn’t paying attention when you filed your request for a refund. In this kind of situation, you need to appeal your case to someone more senior at either Expedia or American Airlines. I publish the contact names on my new customer service wiki, On Your Side ( A brief, polite email works better than a phone call and also helps you keep a paper trail.

I contacted American Airlines on your behalf. It responded lightning fast — in fact, I’ve never seen an airline react so quickly — and refunded your wife’s ticket. A representative phoned you and apologized, adding that this was the first time the company had heard of your request.

(Photo: Rene S/Flickr Creative Commons)

32 thoughts on “The Travel Troubleshooter: Dead passengers can’t use a flight credit

  1. My best guess here is that Expedia dropped the ball and then tried to blame it on American.  Because while there are some useless customer service drones at American, I cannot imagine one being so heartless as to say “Well, since she can’t use the credit we’d ‘normally’ issue, go away, and never come back!  Bwahahahaaa!”

    1. I tend to agree with Sirwired on this.  I think Expedia is to blame and this would be the second time this week this week that Chris has highlighted an online airline ticketing company that may have dropped the ball.  Sounds like they can’t be bothered to do their jobs correctly.

  2. It’s great that the airline made things good, however I still believe that more followup is needed.

    I think that he is very much entitled to a clear explanation why “this was the first time the company had heard of” him. He deserves and is entitled to an answer for that.

    It does indeed appear that someone at Expedia has dropped the ball, and failed to transmit the paperwork to the airline, and when that came to light, instead of ‘fessing up, the “well, since she’s dead she wouldn’t be able to use the credit” line was just something that whoever messed up could think of, in order to try to cover up their screwup.

    At the very least, Expedia must apologize for such a boneheaded, totally made-up, answer.

    1. Agreed. An explanation is really needed here to find out where this went wrong, particularly from Expedia, who apparently had no intention of doing the right thing.

  3. Yet another case of screw the customer until an ombudsman gets involved. I think that Chris needs a separate area of the site that shows a list of which companies continually need prodding in order to do the right thing.

  4. First time the airline had heard of the request?  I think not.  Boooo. Thanks for continuing to let us know which companies give the worst service so we can avoid them like the plague.  

    1. Obviously this is the first time that AA heard of the request. Otherwise, they would have issued a refund. Look in AA’s fare rules for any nonrefundable ticket and it will say that refunds are provided if the passenger dies. Stop being a typical uninformed reader and jumping to unsubstantiated conclusions.

    2. And if this really was the first time the airline heard this, do you think that they would be so quick to refund it AND apologize?

  5. I actually believe the airline when they say they never heard of this, mostly because it is an industry-wide practice to just go ahead and issue the refund. Not doing so would be guaranteed to create waves.
    No, I think some doo-wah at Expedia forgot to process the request or something along those lines (hence their silence), and when pressed, Expedia conveniently blamed it on the airline, since people hate airlines and they are a safe target.
    Another good reason to stay away from booking on places like Expedia. They’re good for getting a bead on fares, but I book with the airlines.

  6. My husband died in May 2008 4 days before a trip to Florida via Spirit Airlines.  I cancelled the trip and was told I could use the credit at another time.  Four months later I planned to go to FL to bury his ashes (accompanied by a neighbor) and was told I could not use the credit for their “Big Seat” and my neighbor could not use the credit – only me.  (I only got this far with Spirit after Christopher Elliott supplied email addresses of Spirit management).  When I went to use the credit for a trip in May 2009, I was told the credit expires because I had originally booked travel in March 2008, so the accomodation they made was only for 1 year.  I was also reminded during these conversations with Spirit that they had made an exception for me.  I also reminded them that they only made the exception after I invoked Christopher’s name.  At the end of all this, I flew coach, paid for my neighbor’s flight and ate over $600.  And, I will never fly Spirit again.

    1. Dear Pprk, I am truly sorry that this happened to you.  Believe me, based on your account, I will never fly Spirit either–ever.  That is the most callous, disgusting thing any company could ever do to a customer.  And it sounds like Expedia and American are now trying to give Spirit some competition in that category.

      Do these companies budget for advertising?  Seriously, why do they bother?  Because when they pull **** like this, and word gets out, they surely lose any advantage they ever gained by buying promo ads.  Their PR is only as good as their customer service!

      Note to self: add to black list Expedia (check), AmAirlines (check), Spirit (check)… 

      1. As others have noted, American Airlines may not have been to blame for this incident. American is NOT on my blacklist – seems to be one of the better USA airlines these days, in recent experience.

  7. I’d like to offer condolences as well.

    Thank you to American for taking care of this.  However, there are far too many people who are “sleeping at the wheel” and it is amazing that, even after making an additional enquiry, there was still no action from Expedia.

    Good thing Chris helped get it straightened out.


    1. I’m not sure what your point is. But since the passenger died, a refund is due.


      1. My point is in case of the passenger death refund is due even on non-refundable tickets according to the fare rules. But it must be requested at the appropriate department.

    2. I’m not a lawyer, but note the word “may” is used several times.  In contract language, that makes it options.  AA does not have to do anything, if they so choose.

      Not defending AA at all, but that said I’ve found them to be more responsive than most.

  9. When will your consumers realize, EXPEDIA was set up for one reason, NO human employee’s, you do all the work and that is that .

    The same man 20 years ago at a good travel agency would have expected this to be taken care of immediately and it would have.

    For some reason, people let Expedia slide all the time.  Believe me if they have 3 people in their customer service department, it would be a surprise.3 people who can think on their own, a shock.

    HOW Expedia gets away with this, they are a powerful big moneymaking division of a huge conglomerate run by Barry Diller, a very tough rich businesman.  Proof the larger you are, the more lawyers and entourage you have, the harder it is for any customer to get thru.

    in this case, I seriously doubt AA is at fault. Expedia probably did nothing.

  10. ANOTHER Expedia problem???

    I realize they are an online ticket website, primarily in the business to sell tickets and not service customers…but COME ON!

    This is like three or four in the last couple of weeks.

    I realize they do not have the money for the ticket, but they the should have been able to obtain instant authorization to process the refund on behalf of AA!

  11. In defense of American Airlines, several years ago I had bought three nonrefundable round trip tickets to Germany.  Unfortunately, a month prior to the trip my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer, and rather than going to Germany I wanted to stay and take care of her.  I called American and explained the situation.  They were very helpful, they did request a letter from her physician stating she needed my support, and then cheerfully refunded over $5,000, a refund mind you, not a credit.  All it took was a telephone call, and the regular agents handled it, no ombudsman or management involved.  At least then they did the right thing.

    1. That was “several years ago”. Many things have changed in the airline industry since then. You might have a much more difficult time today getting an airline to refund $5,000.

  12. And yet again…nothing happens until Chris gets involved…Somehow this really bugs me! Why does nothing get done until we get Chris on it? This smacks of the company not caring one bit about the customer and only caring about bad publicity…Well, it’s worse publicity when it requires a 3rd party mediation than if they take care of it directly with the customer.

  13. agree with those who feel that Expedia is to carry all the blame here. i highly doubt AA was ever contacted by them, especially in light of their response to Chris. 

  14. Yet another reason I never book through sites like Expedia.  They offer nothing except another “hoop” to jump through when something goes wrong.  Dealing either with the airline directly, or a reputable travel agend, is the only way to avoid such foul-ups.

  15. Here’s the real lesson in all of this: Book through the airline on which you are flying. My mother died last summer after a long, painful illness. I took about ten transcon flights during that time to help out with the situation. When my mother was transferred to hospice I called orbitz to reschedule my flight home.

    I am not exaggerating when I say I spent six hours on the phone being snarled at by surly staff in Indian call centers. They finally gave up and transferred me to Delta customer service, and I spoke with a kind, efficient Delta CS rep who rebooked me within two minutes.

    I had been using Orbitz for about five years before this and occasionally Expedia or Travelocity. You get what you pay for.

    In the last 24 months I’ve become a frequent flyer due to various circumstances, and I’ve learned what every frequent traveller knows. Book with the airline. Book directly with the hotel.

    If nothing goes wrong you may be ok with the cheapest price online agencies, but when something DOES go wrong you’ll realize that if you bought the cheapest ticket imaginable through a place like Expedia or Orbitz, good luck getting your problem rectified.

  16. I am grossly disappointed with Expedia.  Sirwired’s comment stirred me up.
    Did he ever call American Airlines Executive Offices or Expedia?  I am angry.

  17. I agree with all the posters who said that Expedia was probably the main culprit here.  I disagree, however, with those who say (on this issue and others) : “Boycott” , “they’re the worst”.  I have flown frequently with all the US carriers, plus I read a lot of forums on travel.  I don’t see any of the carriers coming out as worse than any others, to any significant degree.  I belong to several loyalty programs too.  But when it comes to booking a flight, I pick the one that gives me the best price and/or the most convenient itinerary.  It’s not worth several hundred dollars (or even $100) in price differential to try and pick the “best” of them – they’re all basically mediocre in my opinion.

  18. I had a similar situation with Jet Blue four years ago, but Jet Blue went out of their way to make things right.  I had reserved 4 tickets using points from my husbands JetBlue account.  He passed away prior to the trip.  No only did they refund everything, but they transferred all of his points for my account, and did not charge anything.  Needless to say, I fly JetBlue often!

  19. My best guess is that Expedia did not care at all. Book the ticket, get the money, adios to you. Use a real live person. We get refunds (unfortunately) 10+ times a year. It takes a death certificate and a letter with the ticket number and 1-2 billing cycles. Never been turned down. And I do apologise to Elliott, you may keep up more. but there was thru 2009 a rule allowing refunds from death.

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