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.

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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?

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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18 thoughts on “Why won’t US Airways refund my change fees?

  1. While I think some of the rules are customer-hostile and counter-productive (like not implementing change fees as a sliding percentage leading up to the flight), I understand why they exist. I also think companies should be consistent in enforcing them.

    That said, once somebody has promised to make an exception to the rules, they should follow through.

    1. I totally agree.. I favor, with some limitations, a sliding fee scale… I also think consistency is key in any policy and I think if there was in fact a promise made, that it be honored as such.
      However, what I also cannot escape that barring some objective evidence, many of these cases end up as a he-said, she-said… therefore, I think it’s a good policy move by the carrier to send a quick email to a passenger when any “off book” discretionary decision is made. On the consumer side (and yes, I do think the consumer has a role to play here too) I think its a good personal policy to ask, in clear terms, *exactly* what is or is not being offered and any limitations on it.

      1. Or you could avoid it all and fly Southwest. Usually not the cheapest, but clearly the best ‘value’ for your money. As in the instant case….

        1. I would debate the words “clearly” and “value.” Southwest has a virtual monopoly in several markets and just because you get the lowest price on a flight does not always equal value when you consider the boarding policies (among many other policies) of WN

        2. Yep! I do favor Southwest for my leisure travel as I usually need to check a bag on vacation, and once you factor in the bag, and give them a little “bump” for the lack of change fees, it is usually still the cheapest, or at least close enough.

  2. LW should have become a follower of the airline’s Twitter feed, and cited the problem there. These feeds exist because airlines are starting to understand the power of social media to focus attention on complaints. The foot-draggers in the back office would have swiftly ben called to account.

  3. You say that US Airways actually has a policy where they will waive certain fees under with a doctor’s letter. So the airline did not actually make a policy exception here —just delayed it as much as possible by having the OP send a fax rather than an email.
    I think that when a company starts making exceptions arbitrarily it will cause more problems than it will solve. A colleague and I ran into this a number of years ago involving a flight forced to make a refueling stop about 100 miles from our destination. The time on the ground did not go well (My best airline story ever!) and we ended up on buses to the destination airport. We had then to find transportation to our destination as the arranged transfers were not available when we finally showed up. Both wrote to the airline–I was reimbursed and my colleague was not. Both had the same experience, both incurred the same rather outrageous cost to get where we needed to be yet only one was reimbursed.
    while I was happy to get the money back, I also realized that one airline agent felt comfortable waiving a rule and the other did not, resulting in drastically different outcomes. So I now lean towards rules being enforced equitably. This may not be the popular view, but it makes more sense than different agents deciding on completely different outcomes from the same or similar event.

    1. While I agree with your premise, if the airline’s written policy is that, when it fails to get you to your destination on time because it didn’t put enough fuel in the plane, and the costs you incur are your problem, it’s a bad policy and should be changed.

      1. Atlanta airport was closed due to bad weather after we left to head home and after circling for a quite a while we had to land and refuel. On the ground we were hit by another plane. They did not plan on force majeure/act of god or a pilot attempting to move another plane in really tight space.

  4. The airline gave the LW an instruction and a fax number to send, so there is no room for the airline not to honor her request.

    Fax is still common in the medical enterprise. It’s probably because it’s safer than other methods and medical professionals have certain restrictions to send medical info over e-mail. I often send my CC info over fax because I believe it’s safer than e-mail.

    I would follow up my fax with a phone call or e-mail as Chris suggested, but not sure if it worked with AA/US Air. When I sent an inquiry on my lost luggage using the web form Chris linked, an AA CR rep didn’t know I had already received my luggage when he replied. He didn’t even bother himself to look up the baggage claim number I provided. The first tier rep’s ability is very limited.

  5. As a rule you should stick to your policy. It’s policy for a reason, and a call to your legal department would probably reveal the “why” if you’re so inclined. But if a company representative deviates from the policy, the company should be held to the promises made by its representative. Only seems fair.

  6. The airlines have so many policies and regulations that I wonder how the employees can keep them straight. Ask a different person on a different day and you will get a different answer. So documentation and persistence are required of the consumer in order to get resolution. It’s so inefficient.

    That said, I have benefited from this confusion as well. Long story, but I had paid a fare up-charge to be eligible for a business class upgrade which I then only received on one leg of the trip. When I inquired about a refund I got several different answers. I was prepared to fight for the refund for the un-upgraded segment, when Lo and Behold, the “system” automatically refunded me for both segments of the trip. So I took the credit and ran. But does that make me a hypocrite?

  7. I would question whether the agent actually said, “We WILL refund your fees with proper documentation.” Or, if the agent said, “Sometimes we permit refunds in the event of hospitalization; send us the documentation for review.” An important distinction in my humble opinion. And once more, with feeling, just because–Non-Refundable. What do people THINK THAT MEANS?

    1. Well, non-refundable means non-refundable. Nothing more or less or non-changeable. Thus, she asked to change her flight and to waive a change fee. She didn’t ask for a refund for the non-refundable fare.
      Even with your latter scenario, the airline still has an obligation to give her either yes or no in a reasonable time, assuming it did in fact receive the fax and it was legible.

  8. Faxes are still used, and you may find it cute to say that nobody uses them, but they do. It is particularly appropriate for sending confidential information such as medical conditions. Anyone who asks for confidential information over an email is not showing due diligence, unless it is all encrypted, which is difficult to ensure.

  9. Chris: an awful lot of printers sold today are “multifunction” printers. One of those functions is the ability to fax. I’d expect that there are actually a lot of people who have the ability to fax documents.

  10. We use a fax for the business constantly. As Bill A says, confidential info should not be emailed, but I’m comfortable with a fax. In addition, you have the original in your files with the time and date it was faxed.

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