Travel Troubleshooter: Mom dies; traveler hit with airline hassles

Published: Sunday, Jun. 8, 2014 - 12:00 am

I recently flew from Washington to Chattanooga, Tenn., on US Airways, because my mother was ill. I planned to stay three days, but her condition worsened, and we put her in hospice care. She died five days after my original return date.

My sister was in the same position and flew on Delta Air Lines. The airline representatives were very sympathetic. They changed her flight, waived the change fee and told her they could change the flight again if she needed to stay longer; they even found her a cheaper flight home. They just needed my mother’s name and the name and phone number of her hospice so they could confirm she was a patient.

A US Airways agent told me that she could not waive the change fee, though I could request a refund after the fact by submitting my mother’s death certificate. I was told that once this was received, US Airways would “consider” refunding the fee. I also had to make multiple calls to change my flight.

I finally spoke to a supervisor, and I asked why some death certificates would be accepted and others not. She said the death certificate would be accepted only if it listed me as a relative.

My mother’s death certificate listed my father as her spouse, but not any of her children. The supervisor said that an obituary also would suffice. She also said the safest way to get the refund processed was online, and she directed me through the rather non-intuitive series of drop-down menus I would need to follow.

I tried this online method and spent at least an hour on different formats for the death certificate in order to meet the maximum file size of 1.1MB. When I hit “submit,” the screen went to a blank white page. I called US Airways and was told that the form had not gone through and that I’d have to try again. I did and got the same result. After several more tries and several more phone calls to US Airways, a representative told me I was using the wrong Web browser. More website troubles followed.

I’m just trying to get my $200 change fee refunded.

– Patricia Clay, Washington

I’m so sorry for your loss. At a time like this, an airline shouldn’t be charging you extra for your ticket, and if it does, it should promptly refund your fees if you can show that you’ve had a death in the family. Kudos to Delta for the way it handled your sister’s bereavement fare. That’s the way it should be done.

US Airways, which recently has merged with American Airlines, did not handle this by the book.

If US Airways only accepted reservations through Internet Explorer, how much business would it be turning down? Similarly, limiting your upload to 1.1MB, when a lot of scans can routinely exceed that, is certain to turn away some grieving passengers.

You could have appealed your case to one of the airline’s executives. I list their names and email addresses on my site: http://elliott.org/contacts/us-airways. Remember, though, that US Airways is under no obligation to refund anything. An airline may waive its own rules when you have a death in the family, but it doesn’t have to.

I contacted US Airways on your behalf and emailed the paperwork. The airline has processed a refund.


Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more tips on his blog, elliott.org, or email him at chris@elliott.org.

Read more articles by Christopher Elliott



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