Travel Troubleshooter: Airline no help on death in family

03/11/2012 1:00 AM

03/11/2012 11:41 AM

My grandfather recently passed away. I needed to travel to Austin, Texas, for his funeral. Because I was already scheduled to fly from Baltimore to Austin on American Airlines on Nov. 24 for Thanksgiving, I thought it would be easiest to just move my outbound flight up a few days to Nov. 19.

I had originally booked the flight through American's website months ago, so I called their helpline on Nov. 17 and explained my situation. They were able to switch me to a flight on the 19th, but said I would need to pay a $150 change fee and the difference between the fare I originally paid and the current fare, which was $254.

I then inquired about bereavement fares, and the agent told me that they were completely sold out of "compassion fares" for that date, but that if I sent them a copy of my grandfather's death certificate, they would refund the difference in cost.

I'm a student with little money, but my grandfather and I were close, so I decided to go ahead with the ticket change given the refund information.

I received a copy of the death certificate just before I returned to Maryland, and began the process of requesting a refund on American's website. The online system tells me I am ineligible for a refund because I used my non- refundable ticket. I have emailed American through the form on its website and have received no response. I am upset that this is happening after the death of a beloved family member – if I had known it would be this difficult, I would have canceled my American flight and booked on an airline that would have been more sensitive.

– Tracy Wilkinson, College Park, Md.

American should have refunded your ticket as promised after you showed it a death certificate. Every time you have to contact the airline to ask about your fare, it's painful.

Bereavement fares are odd, which may be why American seems confused. Many airlines no longer have them, but ticket agents are sometimes empowered to offer a discount off the overpriced "walk-up" fare business travelers typically pay to fly at a moment's notice.

When there's a death in the family, airlines may also waive cancellation or change fees. But there's no hard-and-fast rule about it, so if you find a ticket agent willing to make an exception, be sure the rule is bent for you now – not later. (And if you're promised a refund later, make sure you get it in writing.) It appears there was no written record of a promised refund, which is why American was denying your refund. Plus, because of an unspecified problem with its systems, it wasn't receiving the death certificate, despite numerous attempts by you to send it.

American is under no obligation to give you a refund or discount, even when there's a death in your family. But if a representative promised your money back, then you should get it.

I got in touch with American on your behalf. A representative contacted you and issued a refund to your credit card.


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