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Nonrefundable Tickets: Does an Emergency Count?

Cindy Loose

A recent complaint is a common one: Guy buys a nonrefundable ticket. Something goes wrong and he can't make the flight. He's surprised he can't get his money back.

But if his failure to show was no fault of his own -- say a flat tire, an accident, illness, whatever -- should an airline show mercy? After all, nonrefundable tickets are, well, nonrefundable. The guy who pays extra for a refundable ticket might say, "Too bad." That's certainly the feeling of a lot of airlines, apparently, given their rules.

On days when I'm in a bad mood and tired of hearing people being surprised by things I've warned about over and over, I feel like, "You took your chance, now pay the price." On my better days, I feel, "Hey, if they have an empty seat on a later flight, give the guy a break."

Am I right, or am I right?

By Cindy Loose |  August 29, 2007; 9:49 AM ET  | Category:  Airline Industry , Cindy Loose
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$150 change fee, and you can book a seat on another flight...

Posted by: jdubbs | August 29, 2007 10:54 AM

Airlines have all sorts of discretion with this sort of policy. They should use it to create good will, provided the customer can document a true emergency. By way of example, American Airlines has twice come through for my family. I booked a vacation using frequent flier miles. My father passed away a few days before I was to leave and his funeral was less than 48 hours before my scheduled departure. The attendant emotional issues aside, I was unable to travel due to religious observances relating to my father's death. Upon presentment to American of a copy of my father's death certificate, they credited the miles back to my account, instead of enforcing their rule that the flight be re-booked within a year. Several months thereafter, my mother booked flights for the two of us to fly first class to visit family. While we were away, Mom fell and broke her back. She had to be medevac'd home after spine surgery. We explained the situation and supplied proof that I flew home coach rather than first class, as there weren't first class flights available within a certain window of time for me to get home and also provided proof that my mother was medevac'd home. American credited my mother's account not only with the miles for the back end of her ticket, but a portion of the miles on the back end of my ticket, since I flew coach rather than first class. I think of those things whenever I am sitting on the runway in an American plane, 45 minutes behind schedule.

Posted by: Barbara | August 29, 2007 11:13 AM

I have often had to change non-refundable tickets. It is not pretty, but having proof of an emergency does go along way to getting what you need. I have also noticed a good attitude can work miracles. I always start off by saying I know I need to pay a change fee and any fare difference and I am happy to do so. Many times the agents will do it for free if I am not asking for the world.

One the days where I have missed a flight due to traffic problems or I just did not want to get out of bed at 3am, I have always been allowed to fly stand-by on a later flight that day for free or pay a $25 to be confirmed on a later flight.

Posted by: Sierra | August 29, 2007 11:44 AM

I had a non-refundable ticket to Iceland and then needed hip replacement surgery that came about suddenly. I was able to get a full refund for my medical emergency. I believe going through my travel agent helped alot. I was surprised.

Posted by: joey | August 29, 2007 11:56 AM

There is nothing more annoying than listening to some amped up soccer-mom or elderly couple learn about overbooking for the first time. The situation is always the same - tears, yelling, anger, accusations, talks with supervisors, vows of no repeat business, vows to have the poor gate agent fired, etc. etc. etc. AND THEN, after they have worked themselves up into an unreasonable fit, they sit down and wait for the next flight. You would think they would have heard of this, seen something about it or at least gotten to the airport early enough to make the cut!

Posted by: Know the rules | August 29, 2007 12:30 PM

Airlines should be as flexible and generous as possible. After all, these days they expect travelers to be that way. Sitting on tarmacs, an on-time performance that cries out for a Mussolini, and the highest lost luggage rates or all time mean that air travel is increasingly something people do as a necessity. It was leisure travel that transformed air travel after de-regulation. Personally, I've chosen to take vacations closer to home or overseas with an oversea airline because of the delays and hassles. Flying for a 10 hour or less driving destination is something I no longer do, even though that was my criteria a few years ago.

Posted by: Cate | August 29, 2007 12:32 PM

There are it is probably equally split between a legit excuse (tradgedy, accidet, ticket, local driving conditions) and nonlegit excuses.

A logical middle ground would be, as Southwest does, allow some middle ground which is credit for a future flight.

This along with other issues need to be addressed in a travelers bill of rights. Some that need to be addressed:

1. The ability to enter and exit at any point in a ticket booking without refunding the ticket.

2. The ability tobok, as some buiness travelers do, is say fly NW out and book it for a 2 week retuen and then when they were planning on returning (the next day) they book the return on say USAIRWAYS with the plan of retuning for a second trip in two weeks or so.

3.Have harsher penalties on airlines for cancelled flights, forced bumps from flight, and significant flight delays. Also force the airlines to rebook on competator airlines earlier given the delay.

4. With delays, airlines are required to give a legit explanation for delays.

5. require airlines when flight capavcity is very high to add flights.

6. Have regulations in flace to protect smaller airports from losing service and preventing monopolies. This also will put some price regulations into place from an airline raising fares which caauses passangers to drop flying which then make a legit reason for the airline to pull out of the market. I understand some airlines may experiment with new markets (example would be wilmington, DE).After is proven viable then market protection takes effect.


Posted by: DJP | August 29, 2007 12:39 PM

We have not had so much luck with American Airlines. Our graduate student daughter was unable to return to the UK from Los Angeles as planned, because her student visa was delayed in processing.
We requested some assistance from American for her very expensive, although not refundable, return portion, but to no avail. We asked for anything, including a later flight, a nominal future credit, frequent flier mile credit,in return for which we would cancel her reservation to allow American to resell her seat at the height of the summer tourist season. No deal.
The American agent told us that we should cancel her seat because "it is the moral thing to do". No mention of the moral duty of American Airlines was made by the agent.
She flew back on British, which is a better ride in general, despite their luggage handling issues.

Posted by: mary lou cook | August 29, 2007 12:44 PM

i don't know what the answer is but here are the thoughts that go through my head when thinking about this:

a) consumers should know the rules. you check the "i understand all the crap that goes along with this rate" checkbox when you book tickets online, so, know what you're checking.

b) if you stay informed and are polite to gate agents, most of the time they will do everything they can to get you on a different flight. i've had favors done for me over and over by being patient and asking a lot of polite questions (are there any other aiports in the area? do you have partner airlines you can check?)

c) however, if it is the airline's fault, there should absolutely be better compensation. One time an airline tried really hard to get me to miss Christmas with my family (100% their fault - cancelled due to lack of planes or something). Clearly there was no way to get me on another plane in time, I understand they were booked. But it seems to me they have an obligation to get me home in these circumstances.

They (United) could have bought a lot of customer appreciation by doing the following:

a) paying for my car rental
b) paying for the 4 hours of parking at dulles i did while i thought they would be flying me home
c) not trying to charge me the $100 "change fee" to keep my return ticket once i "decided not to use my outbound ticket" ... hello, missing christmas and rebooking for january wouldn't really cut it.

The fact that they ignored that entire trifecta was mindboggling. also the mindset of "well we couldn't get you there this weekend, but we can get you there next weekend and that's just as good" doesn't really fly in a lot of circumstances (weddings, holidays, etc). I've used it a couple times but I've used Hertz rent-a-car almost as many.

Posted by: ffx | August 29, 2007 12:55 PM

PS - expanding on a piece of my previous post ... why is it that if an airline cancels a flight and tells you to go home, they can't refund your parking or your metro fare? They claim (both at dulles and reagan, this has happened to me a lot) that "they're not set up for that".

So ... why aren't they? It's usually less than $20, and would be a big boost to customer service in my mind.

Posted by: ffx | August 29, 2007 12:57 PM

@Know the rules, I don't see what your post has to do with any of this. The subject is whether non-refundable tickets should have some value, not overbooking and involuntary bumping.

In some cases, non-refundable tickets have no value unless you notify the airline in advance that you don't intend to make the flight. If, for whatever reason, you just decide not to show up for the flight, your ticket value is forfeited.

The DOT is taking comments on a revision to the rules concerning compensation for those involuntarily bumped. The web site is http://dms.dot.gov/. Perform a simple search for Docket # OST-2001-9325.

Posted by: Brian | August 29, 2007 1:48 PM

"Know the Rules" does have a point, though, that many passengers seemed surprised by things that shouldn't surprise them.

One thing that comes up in my email que over and over: Someone remembers once getting a free ticket cause the flight was overbooked and they got bumped, and they can't understand why they didn't get a free ticket when they were inconvienced by a late or cancelled flight. Of course most of you already know the feds set rules about bumping and require that airlines make cash payments for bumping someone, if you prefer cash to a voucher you might have trouble cashing in. The penalty discourages airlines from flagrant overbooking.

But I'm glad the feds don't extract penalties from an airline for leaving late. Otherwise I'm afraid the airlines would be tempted to wrap a little bailing wire around a malfunctioning engine just so they don't have to pay a planeload of people waiting for the plane to be properly fixed.

One thing that's never been clear to me--How much discretion do the airline desk reps have in waiving rules?

I see the airline's point of view--not their fault your car crashed, and if it's going to cost them the price of a seat to accommodate you, I can see why they wouldn't want to do that. But if another plane is leaving with seats they aren't going to be filled anyway, seems like it's a good business practice to get you on your way.

Each airline, by the way, has different rules about how far in advance you have to report in to them and still be able to retain some of the value of your ticket. I wrote about each airline's rules some time ago, and remember some require as much as 24 hours notice, others will let you call in and make a change as long as the plane hasn't left the ground. I need to update that some day soon.

Posted by: Cindy Loose | August 29, 2007 2:56 PM

I don't understand why Congress hasn't done something about the airlines. Don't the airlines ask us to be patient with delays, over-bookings, cancellations, equipment problems, etc. often with no reimbursement?

If they are asking us to be flexible, shouldn't they do the same? Do they really want me flying with a cold or the flu, which are certainly unexpected problems and infecting other passengers?

I've flown well over a million miles and have had airlines lodge me at one of their hubs with a $10.00 dinner voucher. I've had them mess up my vacations, had emergency landings, aborted takeoffs and even took off once with a flat tire! We landed with it too! I've also had my baggage misplaced on several occasions. On my last trip, I was rerouted to Ontario Airport instead of Palm Springs. Transportation between the airports was left to me!!!

I think we need to call for legislation so the customers can control what this industry is doing. I don't see what the benefit of deregulation has been and think it needs to be reexamined.

Posted by: David Blackburn | August 29, 2007 3:34 PM

NO question it's a huge mess. It looks like airlines might finally be making money this year, after a bunch of years of teetering around or falling into bankruptcy. But it seems they've accomplished that by cutting personnel and equipment to the bone. To make money they need to keep planes full and turn them around quickly, but if the slightest thing goes wrong, that means they, and we, have nothing to fall back on.

Even if the airlines did everything right, though, there would still be problems caused by our outmoded air traffic control system. I mean they still use radar--which is something I associate with WWII or may MASH and the Korean War. I can't think of another system operating in my life that still uses technology in use in 1948. When was radar invented, anyway?

What do people think Congress should do?

Seems to me that a lot of things to make for smoother sailing would cost a lot of money/ Meanwhile, they could do some of the things that would cost them little or nothing ---like sharing information.

Actually, if I could suggest one thing airlines could do for customer service that might not also make them go broke---get rid of overseas calls centers.

I think the airlines KNOW how bad their overseas calls centers are, cause if you happen to be an elite frequent flyer and you call the airline, you usually get a U.S. call center.

Posted by: cindy loose | August 29, 2007 3:55 PM

There are two separate issues. Airlines, like any business have an interest in keeping their customers. so it might be in their best interest to be as flexible as possible.

However, you don't need to have much eduication beyond, oh say 8th grade, to know that non-refundable means you can't get a refund.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 29, 2007 4:04 PM

> I can't think of another system operating in my life that still uses technology in use in 1948.

Cindy: Then I assume that you don't drive a car with a piston engine, because the piston engine was around in 1948, right?

And you've never ridden a train pulled by a diesel locomotive, because those were around in 1948 too.

And I assume that you don't own a refrigerator either. Refrigeration technology is mostly unchanged since the 40s.

Should I go on?

Posted by: stuckman | August 29, 2007 5:07 PM

I've taken to flying Southwest whenever I can precisely because of these really irritating policies. I can live without an assigned seat. And if something happens and I don't make the flight, there's no change fees for re-booking.

Vote with your dollars.

Posted by: MiC | August 29, 2007 7:53 PM

David Blackburn | "even took off once with a flat tire! We landed with it too!

And this bothers you? I think landing with the flat tire beats the alternative. Beside, the tires get very little use in flight anyway.

Posted by: the logical flyer | August 29, 2007 8:55 PM

The change fee for nonrefundable tickets used to be $25, which was not a big deal for a change in travel plans. Now it's $100 -- which is serious money, especially if you are travelling with a family of 4 or more. That is a major disincentive to changing flights -- and that's why the airlines love it!

Posted by: es | August 29, 2007 10:23 PM

This is why I always use Southwest for my personal domestic trips. Because I always fly at Christmas, I can be sure that I'll use the credited amount within a year. This has worked well for me twice -- once when I cancelled a late-summer trip to Florida due to an incoming hurricane, and once when I was too sick to make my flight home. I was able to change my flight to the next day -- no change fee, but I did have to pay the difference in fares between the ultra-cheap internet fare I had gotten far in advance and the higher (though still pretty reasonable) fare that was available for a next-day flight. (Plus, of course, Southwest offers the same amount of room and comfort that now passes for "Economy Plus" on United, and has never lost my luggage (I'm looking at you, Delta).)

Posted by: jane | August 30, 2007 1:00 PM

Just using a little common sense would boost my opinion of airlines. Delta cancelled my flight a couple of years ago (no reason given) from Atlanta to DCA. Rather than wait over 12 hours for the first flight with a available seats, 4 other passengers and I, who all lived in Maryland, agreed to take an earlier flight to BWI and Delta would provide a shuttle for us to Washington. When we arrived, we were told the shuttle was waiting to take us to DCA. We all knew how long it could take to go around the city and asked to be taken to the Greenbelt Metro instead. Delta refused! We didn't ask to be taken to our homes or even separate locations. We want to save ourselves (and the airline!) a little time, energy, and money. It's a really bad business policy to insist on spending extra company money just to avoid fulfilling customer requests.

Posted by: Silver Spring | August 30, 2007 4:05 PM

On a non refundable ticket, there is absolutely no reason the airlines shd be allowed to keep the taxes, which can run hundreds of dollars on an int'l ticket. If a psgr does not travel, the taxes, esp "passenger facility charges" are not remitted to the gov't bodies, so shd be rtned to the customer.
There also shd be some sort of minimun expectation of services...ie:being able to get thru on the res lines....esp those airlines who keep all your money for "no shows". How can one possibly cxl if one cannot even get thru on the phone to cancel!? took me over 2 days to get thru to Jet Blue this past summer. So much for re-committment to customer service!

Posted by: a barbi | September 5, 2007 12:09 PM

I have just gone through this most unhappy
experience myself, not only having non-ref
undable round trip flights but rented car
and activities as well without being able
to recieve one single refundable cent. My
reason for cancelling all of my program --
for two people -- was a very strong one:
my passport VISA was denied, consequently
I was unable to continue with plans. This
was not sufficient reason for them to under
stand my need to cancel everything at that
moment. For me it was a most frustrating
intense experience. Expedia did recognize
a partial hotel refund; Delta nor any other
alternate lines along the trip did not
either. Hertz acted the same way and did not
offer any refund on car rental.

Posted by: Maxie D | September 6, 2007 5:48 AM

Completely agree that airlines should forfeit any taxes charged when you cancel your flight plans. Perhaps airlines should operate in a similar way to hotels: you make your reservation, there's no fee to change the reservation since it takes what...all of 5 seconds for them to do, and then if you cancel within a specified amount of time, then no cancellation fees. I almost always fly either Southwest or Alaska Airlines because they both seem to have pleasant gate/flight attendants and I've never had a flight canceled or my luggage lost. That's created a lot of brand loyalty and I always check their rates first. The problem with the attitudes of most airlines companies is that even though they desperately need your business, they don't do anything to encourage you to be a loyal customer. That's exactly why hotels are so forgiving with cancellations, because they want you to come back! Seems pretty simple to me. Also, before you fly, know your rights...and yes, passengers do have rights (limited though they are). Read up before you fly at http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/publications/flyrights.htm.

Posted by: Hunter | September 12, 2007 8:01 PM

Also check out: www.mytravelrights.com. Better yet, print it and take it with you whenever you fly!

Posted by: Hunter | September 12, 2007 8:04 PM

If you are worried about non-refundable tickets, and especially if hotel, excursions, etc. are riding on that air trip...why not get travel insurance?

Posted by: lovetotravel | September 13, 2007 2:15 PM

Good site! I'll stay reading! Keep improving!

Posted by: George | November 10, 2007 9:36 AM

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