Why won’t US Airways refund my change fees?

US Airways promised Kirkland Clarkson that it would refund her fees, but it hasn’t. Did the airline misspeak? Or did Clarkson misunderstand?

Question: I recently booked two nonrefundable roundtrip airline tickets from Norfolk, Virginia, to Jacksonville, Florida, on US Airways. I became ill, spent 14 days in the hospital and had to cancel the flight. I faxed the airline a doctor’s letter, as instructed, asking to change the tickets to another date and to waive the change fees. I received no response.

I called US Airways and paid an additional $445 in change fees and fare differential. An agent told me I could get a refund for the fees because of my hospitalization.

I sent US Airways another fax, asking it to waive the fees. It hasn’t given me the courtesy of a response, much less a refund.
Can you help me deal with the airline? — Kirkland Clarkson, Norfolk, Va.

Answer: A quick review of the correspondence you sent to US Airways shows the likely problem. You faxed documentation of your illness to the airline, but you enclosed a handwritten cover letter with your flight information. It looks as if the system never actually received the information, even though you sent it several times.

It’s true that US Airways will waive some of its fees if you can provide a doctor’s note. However, that probably will end when it harmonizes its policy with American Airlines (the two are in the process of merging). American Airlines doesn’t permit such changes.

But US Airways made the process difficult by asking you to send a fax to its refunds department. A fax, in 2014? Who has a fax anymore?

Companies often ignore faxed correspondence. Why? Maybe the fax ran out of paper? Maybe the transmission stopped halfway through or it was otherwise unreadable?

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The point is, US Airways could have made it easier to send the necessary documents. A cynic might believe this is intentional — that the airline simply doesn’t want to refund any fees. But I think refunds just are not a priority. Corporate America is always quick to take your money, but slow to refund it.

You could have done a few things to prevent this from happening. Travel insurance might have protected you, unless you were hospitalized for an existing medical problem. Many policies have exclusions for pre-existing conditions. A fully refundable ticket also might have been an option, but you usually can buy three or four nonrefundable tickets for the same price, so unless you’re loaded, it’s hardly a viable choice.

But I think typing up the cover letter and then following up with an email probably would have done the trick. US Airways is less likely to ignore an email — it sends automated acknowledgments to every email it receives through its site.

To be clear, US Airways didn’t have to refund anything; you purchased nonrefundable tickets. But if a representative told you the airline would refund your fees, then I would expect it to actually do so. By the way, I hope American Airlines decides to keep this policy, because it’s the right thing to do.

I contacted US Airways on your behalf and it refunded the fees, as promised.

Should a company honor its promises or stick to its policy?

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