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Christopher Elliott / Travel & Leisure

A runaround for an airline ticket refund

Q: I'm hoping you can help, because I'm stuck in limbo with my request for a refund on a $950 nonrefundable ticket to Maui on American Airlines.

I purchased the ticket for my mother. A few months later, she fell and broke her hip. She passed away about a month later.

After reading several of your articles regarding refunds for nonrefundable tickets, and noting you included death as one of two usual exceptions, I decided to contact American Airlines.

I submitted three online refund requests to American. It did not respond.

Finally, I contacted customer relations by phone and received instructions on how to cancel her ticket and submit a death certificate. A week later, I received an e-mail addressed "To Whom It May Concern" requesting a written explanation of the cancellation along with a copy of the death certificate.

What kind of written explanation is needed regarding death?

American Airlines has sent us several more form letters, but so far hasn't refunded the tickets. We even tried to leave a message on its Facebook account, but it hasn't responded. I hope you can help. -- John King, Carlisle, Iowa

A: My condolences on your loss. When your mother passed away, American Airlines should have refunded her ticket after you sent it her death certificate. I've never heard of an airline requiring an explanation for a passenger's death. It seems redundant, since the death certificate would have noted her cause of death.

Airlines routinely refund nonrefundable tickets when a passenger dies. It is, as I've noted, one of the few reasons for a refund (the others being a flight cancellation, a significant schedule change or a documented change in military orders). And while it's not unusual for the company to request a death certificate once, it's uncommon to receive numerous form letters, which just stall the refund process and appear to be intended to make you give up.

When an airline gives you the runaround, it's time to begin forwarding your correspondence to someone higher up the corporate food chain. I list the names and addresses of managers who can help on my customer service wiki (http://onyoursi.de/wiki/airline/american-airlines/). That probably would have done the trick.

I'm disappointed with the way American handled your request. At a time like this, the airline should have been compassionate about your loss and done its best to minimize the paperwork necessary to secure a quick refund.

I contacted American on your behalf. It apologized and issues a full refund for your mother's ticket.

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Christopher Elliott is the author of "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at chris@elliott.org. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, and though he answers them as quickly as possible, your story may not be published for several months because of a backlog of cases.





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