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Should Airlines Refund Tickets in Cases of Death, Illness or Running Late? I Say Nay!

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?

45 comments to Should Airlines Refund Tickets in Cases of Death, Illness or Running Late? I Say Nay!

  • 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.

      David

      • Matt

        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????

  • Adam

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

  • Roger

    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.

      David

  • Ben

    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.

      David

  • David

    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.

      David

  • Sam Inla

    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.”

  • Adam

    “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.

      David

  • Daniel

    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!

      David

  • David

    David-

    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?

    • David,

      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.

      David

  • 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.

  • David

    My Father passed on 5/23. We held 3 non-refund tix from Bos-Anchorage for 6/12. The airline refunded the entire cost. Your post went to an extreme Death/Ilness grave enough to prevent a person from flying…in those circumstances, very few—if any airlines are going to adhere to a strict policy & most have a policy for paying the balance back to the next of kin. Was it my Father’s “fault” that he died-No. Was it my “fault”-No. Same is true if I need to have my appendix removed suddenly, is it my “fault” I can’t fly no….neither is it the airline’s…but the airline can’t have a policy that forces me to fly no matter my condition. Anyway…I hope you see the extreme vs. happense everyday & on almost every flight of death-ilness vs. tardiness. In regards to the airline tix vs. concert tix—airlines win, always & everytime. If a person is a no-show for a flight, the airline will resell the seat to any takers. It’s just an awkward example that you gave…airlines do have policies for death/illness that refund the monies & don’t place the onus upon the family…heck, the airline I canceled with refunded my money ASAP…and didn’t recieve a death certificate until 2 weeks later on like June 21. It’s a practical matter…death is a very special circumstance…I know of a guy who bought a car and died the following day…the dealership was under no obligation to take the car back…but they did, and used it as a service loaner..while refunding the family in full. All companies have some sort of death “clause” & at presnt time, with all the add-on fee’s…it would be a pretty dopey decision for airlines’s to demand that no matter the circumstance a non-refundable ticket is ALWAYS and FOREVER non-refundable no matter the circumstancs.

    • David, I agree with you that it is nice if an airline does refund tickets in these very extreme circumstances, but they are not required to.

      I would really hope (and be upset) if an airline did not refund in your instance. Maybe I should have been a little more light on these extreme circumstances and concentrate on the less extreme in my blog.

      One of the ideas I was trying to get across is if an airline refunds more, they need to charge more overall to recoup those costs. This just means they have to raise costs for everyone.

      David

    • Chris J

      I don’t think anyone disagrees with the idea that if you miss a flight for which you have a non-refundable ticket, that the ticket is just that…non-refundable. Passengers can and should take responsibility for terms of the contract of carriage. I agree that people should be responsible for the terms of thier purchase…and generally they are until they can’t meet them. How many people have actually read an airline’s contract of carriage? They’re not all the same.

      However, death is a completely different matter. You can’t compare getting stuck in traffic to dying..whether it is the passenger, or a passenger’s immediate family member, it is apples and oranges. Airlines already recognize this (see the Delta Contract of Carriage), and frequently will waive some fees, depending on the circumstances. It is easy to postulate or theorize on what you would or would not do in the event of someone’s death, but until it happens to you in the same circumstances, it is merely a mental exercise.

      • Hey Chris!

        But there are a lot of people that do think they should have a ticket refunded if it is not their fault or the airline’s fault. That just isn’t wrong.

        Even though I am more iffy on the death thing, passengers are still agreeing to the terms of service about what a non-refundable ticket means. Most other services (movies, sports, etc) don’t care if someone close to you dies. You lose that money.

        However, many airlines are not heartless and will give refunds on a case-by-case basis.

        David

  • Florent

    Can’t you just buy insurance for your ticket or use the insurance provided by your credit card in case of a cancelation?

    With a non refundable ticket, we should be able to settle something with the carrier. Accident appens in life. It’s not a voluntary change of plan and at this moments, the more help we can get, the better it is. the PR department of airlines should be able to do something about it.

  • David Z

    At any rate, some airlines (well the U.S.-based ones like UA, US, DL, AA and CO I’ve dealt with) can refund non-refundable tickets for “extenuating” matters like death. They want some way to verify those claims, but they’re open to nonetheless.

    It’s harder dealing with, say, European carriers. Swiss Air (LX) is one I particularly encountered who won’t refund no matter what, except if they cancel the flight themselves.

    • Michelle

      I currently am having to deal with Swiss Air….not fun. Since a travel warning from the U.S. State Department has gone into effect, I don’t think it wise I go to Cairo in a week. They are not budging.

  • will

    An employee at my family business just went through some extreme situations that United doesn’t seem to care about. Her son had some sort of stroke a week before her flight, and then a few days before her flight he was brought back to a different hospital that said it was severe migraines. I’m no doctor, but he lost most of the use of one side of his body and his face was sagging on one side. To top that off, they think he has meningitis the mother was definitely exposed to it if that is what he has (she was helping him take care of him while he was puking). Her granddaughter that she’s going to visit has an immune deficiency disorder of some sort so she can’t risk exposing her to something like that. So she has a note from her son’s doctor saying she has to take care of him, and could readily get a note saying she can’t visit her granddaughter. All she got from united was that it costs $150 to change the reservation.

    We aren’t just talking about pity here, how about being willing to expose 2 airplanes full of people to a communicable disease to make sure you fill a seat on a plane you’ve probably overbooked anyways? In the past year every plane I’ve gotten on has been full with a few on the standby list. It’s nobody’s fault, but I would think they could at least allow for some leeway with a doctor’s excuse. I sure won’t give united money, they guy next to me might have sars.

  • brian

    David, you struck a chord with your “appendix” comment: My wife and I are expecting twins in February. Our first (and last) big, restful vacation with our current ‘family configuration’ (us + one 4-yr-old daughter) was going to be over this weekend – late summer on the quiet beach. This was planned/booked months ago. Tuesday, my wife is ordered on total bed rest for the rest of her pregnancy – doctor’s authorized note and all. My wife blames herself and is obviously devastated beyond words – flying is out of the question until the birth (unless we want to risk losing my wife or the babies) and after that, who would fly with newborn twins just to use the vouchers? I understand the whole non-refundable ticket deal but common sense says we are out a lot of money if UNITED doesn’t budge. Talking with three separate UNITED “customer service reps” we got nothing but the run-around. I was on hold for an hour waiting for a manager. When someone finally picked up I had been transferred to Hertz rental car.

    • Hey Brian,

      There is no question that having your wife on bedrest is not a fun thing. One of my good friends has been on bedrest for 3 months with twins due very soon.

      Not to sound cold, but your situation is not United’s fault…really it is no one’s fault. An airline can’t be held responsible for actions outside of their control. What other form of pre-paid service would you get a refund for? Sporting events, movie, concerts, etc?

      Of course there are people who care and will sympathize at any airline, but they are a business. Where is the line drawn? Someone who is too sick to fly? What if I break my leg? What if I just don’t feel like flying?

      And you shouldn’t lose all your money. You can use the tickets for a future date for a $150 change fee per ticket. Yes, $450 for your three tickets isn’t cheap, but better than losing everything. Now the transferring to Hertz, that is pretty tacky and having to go through the menu again and re-explain things is never a fun process.

      Anyhow, I wish you and your wife the best of luck with your soon to be new family!

      David

      • will

        to be fair, in sporting events, movies, and concerts, you’ve bought the seat and nobody will be there if you aren’t. The airline will either sell an overpriced seat at the airport to someone else, or have already overbooked the plane anyways.

  • I think the balance is to not refund the ticket, but to waive a rebooking fee on the flight credit. People change their flights frequently and there is always a little flex from people going standby, missing a connection, or the flight being overbooked (also a reason for overbooking). So the small number of changes for deaths wouldn’t be too large of an empty-seat-that-could-have-been-filled loss. Plus some people would likely not be able to use the credit in the coming year, so the airline saves there. Seems that the goodwill would outweigh these smaller costs and the anger at a $150 rebooking fee. We all know that a hater is supposed to be 10 times more damaging to a brand that a zealot is helpful to it.

  • Diego

    i flew with Continental Airlines from guadalajara MEXICO to stuttgart GERMANY with connection in USA and I arrived 7:30 hrs late because of an Continentals error, we were waiting for the crew because they were late, and that makes me loose my connection, i wait like 2 hrs for the crew and the other hours i wait for my new flight… is there some law that support me? or can you give me some advice?… i apologyse for my English =)

  • F. Shirazi

    Can one claim against the Airline if throughout the journey I was extremely ill and vomiting? As I entered the aircraft I felt I could not breathe properly and after I had eaten the food I got worse, so much so that I was given saline drip 3 times through out the journey. When I arrived at London I was rushed by an ambulance to the nearest hospital, where after several tests it was confirmed that nothing was wrong with me. Strangely enough when I was taken out of the aircraft I felt I much better.
    I was due to take a connecting flight but could not do so because of this. I was not required to pay for the change of flight.
    I assume it must have been the air fume in the aircraft. Can I claim for a full refund and/or compensation even if the other passengers were fine? Also when does the airline duty of care ends? In my case they booked me 3 days hence. Are they liable to take care of me during the 3 days as well?

  • Raj

    I gotta say that while most of this makes sense (as unfair as it may seem when traveling), I would disagree in the case of communicable disease. My son has hand, foot, and mouth disease right now and the doctor instructed us not to fly – not so much for my son as for the good of the other passengers. And God knows this same argument applies to much scarier diseases than this one.

    So now I have a choice, fork over a bunch of money to American, or take the vacation we want and say to hell with a hundred or so people on that plane and enjoy our vacation. Our son isn’t going to get better any slower if he travels with us to see his grandparents while he’s sick. Is this really the right incentives to put in place? It almost seems to invite a lawsuit if someone contracts something because an airlines created an environment in which fellow travelers were incetivised to travel on time rather than at a safe time.

  • Danny

    How about this…..Since the airlines want to get technical with the tickets and moneys refunded. It is not guaranteed that the plane will land safe with me on it but the airlines would refuse to refund my money for any reason other than illness or death. Well I say to make it fair for the consumer we should be able pay after the plane lands safely to our final destination.

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  • kim

    Hi I agree with much of what you have said David, my only question would be is if I had booked but there was an issue with the non refundable ticket such as computer/website error like double booking would I be entitled to a refund then?

  • Jose Garcia

    I have no problem with non refundable tickets but why air lines sell the no show passenger seats without compensating the original ticket holder?

  • Flight from CA to FL this past June 2014–had to cancel per my nurlogist (head injury) too bad for me no way would they give ANY type of refund for the 1,200 I spent anything would have been appreciated…Here on my desk sits
    the ticket.Could not even let my grandson just back from Iraq use them Shame on you American Airlines…

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