Don't blame the airline for when things happen out of their control!

Don't blame the airline for when things happen out of their control!

Consumer advocate Chris Elliott recently wrote a blog stating, “Airlines should refund tickets for cancellation, death, disease and other unfortunate circumstances.” I very much respect Elliott’s work, but him being a consumer advocate and me being an airline advocate, we are going to disagree.

Elliott cites a survey where 88% of passengers said they should get a full refund if their next of kin dies, 80% said they should get a refund if they had a communicable disease and 33% said they should if they can’t make it to the airport for reasons beyond their control.

Now, don’t get me wrong, having any of these things happen to you bites (probably the death and disease thing bites more than being late). But how are any of these the fault of the airline? They aren’t.

Airlines give you a choice. Would you like to buy a refundable ticket for a higher price or a non-refundable for cheaper? It is a gamble. What are the chances someone close to you will pass away? That you will get really sick? Or a jack-knifed truck will make you miss your plane? If you think these and other reasons could make you miss your flight, then get the refundable ticket. If you like to take risk and want to save a few bucks, then get the refundable…easy enough. If you lose your gamble, so be it.

I have lost quite a bit of money to the airlines for deaths, illness, a hurricane and just changes of plans. Each one of those where bad situations, but I didn’t expect the airline to refund my money for issues out of their control. I was able to redeem at least some of my money on each ticket. Most airlines will give you credit for future travel with-in a year, for a fee ($25-$100 or so). I know I made the decision to get a non-refundable ticket, took the risk, and I win most times. Over all, it has been very beneficial getting non-refundable tickets over refundable.

There is also a bigger picture here. Airlines are not charities. They need to make a profit to exist and fly us all over the world. If they start offering refunds for incidents that are not their fault, that means all fares go up. Do you want to pay more for your ticket because someone can’t make it to the airport on time? No thanks!

In 2009 there were 711,000,000 passengers that flew in the US. How many of those do you think had a death in the family, got sick or missed their airplane? Even a very small percentage still means big money for airlines.

Now, this is not to say that if airlines mess up and it is their fault you don’t make your flight, you should get taken care of. However, there are already rules in place to protect you when it is the airline’s fault.

What do you think? Should airlines refund more tickets? Should there be a third option for life changing events?

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EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & FOUNDER – SEATTLE, WA. David has written, consulted, and presented on multiple topics relating to airlines and travel since 2008. He has been quoted and written for a number of news organizations, including BBC, CNN, NBC News, Bloomberg, and others. He is passionate about sharing the complexities, the benefits, and the fun stuff of the airline business. Email me:
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How much would airlines actually lose if they refunded fares to the survivors of a ticketed passenger who checks out before checking in for their flight? Is it really that much? I would suggest that should you tell the family of a dead person “no, you can’t have the $300 back”, you’ll lose a lot more than that in future bookings. There’s something to be said for good PR.

Well the big problems becomes verifying the information. A lot of people would just lie. If it was just for death, probably not that many. Add in people being sick or missing the plane b/c of traffic, then we are talking a lot of cash.

I know most airlines will refund on a case by case basis, even though their policy is not to refund.

I think this is more about people expecting to get one. As an informed consumer, when you buy a non-refundable ticket, you shouldn’t expect it to be refunded.


Ask to provide the office of the coroner who handled the death for verification, problem solved.

Hi David-
I book 2 tickets from SFO-BCN and it cost me $7,000 business class seats. With united airlines and I bought the ticket and I have 2 travelers in my profile. When i checked the ticket 1 week ago i notice that it put in the 2nd traveler not the one that i choose in my profile in a matter of fact i dont know who that person is. I called United Airlines all i want to do is put the correct passenger on it and i be willing to pay something and im told there is no refunds or its non transferable and i would have to contact customer car by email only. I emailed them and there response is that i could cancel the 2nd passenger and they would get the credit to use for future use and I said i dont know that person and im willing to pay a fee. In fact i was looking for a ticket for economy on the same flight so i would buy another ticket and when they get on the plane have them sit in the business seat with me. ALl i want to do is correct the correct passenger that was suppose to be booked and i would paya a fee there not loosing money. They said no!!!. I would try to buy a new ticket but there is none available for those 6 flights. Could you help me all i want to do is correct the passenger and ill pay a fee for a computer glitch, in fact when i first bought the ticket it canceled itself and i had to rebook the ticket the 2nd time… Please what can i do????

Problem is – who buys refundable tickets? Only businesses do. Customers only think of it as a plane ticket.

Very true. But again, the is not the airline’s fault. Airlines make it quite clear you can choose either one and most people choose non-refundable.


This is fine, providing then that the airline cannot deny you boarding if you have a ticket. They can’t have it both ways.

Well, again it comes down to money. Airlines overbook knowing there will some people (on average) that don’t show up. If they didn’t sell those extra tickets, the prices on all the tickets would go up. Plus if you get bumped, you have rights to compensation.


It is called Travel Insurance. Maybe the airlines could offer it as your third option. But I agree if you choose a non refundable ticket you should not get refunded for running late or illness. If the death is that of your traveling companion maybe that should be cause for a refund, with death certificate. The airlines could look good providing this option but with the stress of a death of someone that close to you how many people are going to cash in on this ?

Well yea. I mean if confronted with a true death, I would hope an airline would help someone out, but they aren’t required to.

However, you get to keep that funds towards that ticket for a year with most airlines, minus that change fee of $50-$100. You really want to be on the phone to save that money during a time of death? Not me.


If you purchase the cheapest, non-refundable tix from point A to B….arrive @ the airport on a crystal clear day, are aware that the weather conditions @ your destination are identical…yet the flight is delayed by 1.5 hours due to crew rest b/c the arrival flight for the crew the previous evening was late & the crew requires 8+ hours of rest…how exactly are you at fault for the delay? Everything is cool, the weather, the plane…& your sitting @ the boarding gate delayed by an 1.5 hours. What’s at Point B? An interview for a job you have coveted, applied for, and been interviewed several times for….this is decision day! So you need to be @ Point B, as promised by the airline @ the time of arrival printed upon your ticket. Okay, so your gonna use the “hollow” argument of YOU should have planned better, left the night before if it were so important…etc. Unfortunately to do so would have required your calling in sick @ your present job….you have already taken as many “personal/sick” days as you had avail. Should the airline not refund the entire value of the ticket you purchased? I mean in this instance refundable or non-refundable doesn’t matter…if your holding either ticket, your still not going because of the crew rest issue. Consumer advocates go too far….as do Airline Advocates. P.S. You ever hear of “good will”? It’s that warm fuzzy feeling you get when a United employee says “jump on” and you ride a tug while pushing a 757 back. Would you still have that warm fuzzy feeling if after checking in @ the airport on a non refundable ticket, your cell phone rang & it was a State Trooper saying your Mom had just been in a severe auto accident, you better get to XYZ Hospital ASAP…you get to the Hospital & your Mom dies…few weeks latter, you contact United re: a refund on your $400.00, provide them the circumstances of why you were unable to fly on that day, a death certificate….and they say “sorry, no refund, the flight departed on time & we aren’t responsible for how poor a driver your Mom is…was…right?….ohh & too bad about your mom…we look forward to your business in the future!”. That would give you the warm fuzzy, United did what it had to do, right?

David, if your flight is cancelled because of the airline, they should take care of you. I am talking about things that are not the airline’s fault. Airline’s, like any other form of transportation, cannot promise anything. If you are taking Amtrak and they are delayed a few hours (which happens often) think they will refund you? Of course not.

If my mom dies and I had a $400 trip, trying to save the $50-$100 change of ticket fee (since with most airlines you still have the value of the ticket for a year) is not my top priority. If that happens, yes, airlines look at case-by-case things, but they are not required to do it.


Getting a refund would be the least of my problem if I’m going through a personal crisis like a death in the family or a major illness… Beyond that… I typically buy travel insurance if the trip cost (usually overseas) is significant. I would recommend travel insurance… but do read the policy as most do not cover “act of God.”

Yea good luck getting a refund with that guy 🙂


“but him being a consumer advocate and me being an airline advocate, we are going to disagree.”

What is an airline advocate?

Hello Adam!

One that advocates for the airlines. Looks at the other side of the argument. Most media out there talks about how horrid the airline business is. I like to remind people how complex the business is and just like any other business things will go wrong.


From Delta Air Lines’ Contract of Carriage
“Rule 270 B 1: Notwithstanding the general rule, in the event of death of the passenger prior to the date of travel, tickets issued at nonrefundable fares will be refunded to the deceased passengers’ estate.”

Hmm. That is kind of interesting that they will refund if YOU die, but not refund if a close person next to YOU dies. That doesn’t make sense to me. I mean if I am dead what do I care…I am dead.

Thanks for pointing that out!



Above, Daniel referenced from the contract of carriage of the presntly largest airline in the world, that just as the contract implies…the airline is CONTRACTUALLY OBLIGATED TO REFUND THE TICKET. Precisely what additional proof do you require—as an airline advocate—to realize the thesis of your post wasn’t substantive, but purely personal opinion/conjecture? Possibly if you had written about other “act of god” instances like “my dog died” or “i totaled my car”…you would have had a thesis. In fact, being an airline advocate, I would think you would embrace the wording of the contract of carriage—because it is neither the fault of the airline or the passenger that the ticket can never be used…and it is good will/and a contractual obligation on the part of the airline to refund the monies. My analogy was not in regards to a canceled flight…it was in regards toa delayed flight wherein the burden of reponsibility rests upon the airline for failing to perform the service of a contract because a crew timed out…that ain’t the passengers fault, and becuase of the failure—no matter the discount/refund level of the ticket…the contract between the passenger and airline can’t be fullfiled because of the airlines scheudling failures…so the passenger should also burden this responsibility and not be awarded a refund? The trip is now meaningless and the “flight in 1.5 hours” is not going to do anything for the passenger. Airlines need to be flexible—life is life…passengers ought not expect the “world”…but the circumstances you laid out are too extreme…save for the passenger “running late”, but how does that even come close in magnitude to death or illness?


Yes, the airline is obligated and they should refund the ticket. The airline has the contract with the passenger… guaranteeing them a seat on the plane. Person is dead, can’t make it, then a refund is issued. The person who holds the contract is the most extreme case.

And just because it is not policy for airlines to offer refunds in cases of next of kin death, it doesn’t mean it never happens. And really if someone very close to you dies, are you going to spend the time to save $50-$100? If you make the effort and approach the airline politely, there is a good chance you will save that change fee.


I think it’s as simple as if you can’t make the flight you shouldn’t have to pay. You’re paying for a service, and if you don’t require that service you should be refunded. If you go buy a shirt and find that it doesn’t fit you, you’re going to return it. If you buy a plane ticket and you have a sudden change in schedule, you should be able to return that too.

You pay for using the service, not for the privilege of receiving that service. I don’t see why you should pay for something you’re not going to use.

But you are talking about a product, not a service. Let’s say you pay for baseball, movie, or concert tickets…if you can’t make those, you aren’t getting a refund. You can’t even re-sell the tickets through the venue. At least airlines let you change your schedule, for a fee.

Again, even if airlines did do this, they would have to charge more for all tickets. That is why refundable tickets do cost more.


Again, going back to Delta (because it’s the airline I know best), airlines have something called a “Risk-Free Cancellation” where you can refund your ticket at no charge but during a period ranging 24-48 hours after the reservation was made.

See that is awesome. I have been there before where I get my confirmation and I picked the wrong day and have to pay!


My Father passed on 5/23. We held 3 no