Travel Troubleshooter: If you're contagious, shouldn't you get a flight refund?

Q: Last year, I booked a round-trip ticket from Vienna to New York on Lufthansa’s website. I didn’t notice it, but the comprehensive fare rules were not displayed at the time of booking, only the following note: “The fare you have selected is nonrefundable (except the unused taxes and fees) and cannot or only with restrictions be rebooked.”

A day before the outbound flight, I came down with a severe case of the flu, even though I had gotten a flu shot a few months before. My doctor told me not to fly since I was contagious, and gave me a note to that effect. I decided not to travel.

When I tried to rebook, Lufthansa told me that my ticket was unchangeable, then it canceled the ticket and kept the money. Several appeals to the airline’s reservations number — and even via its Facebook page — were unsuccessful.

I ended up buying a new ticket for $1,318 to fly several weeks later. I contacted Lufthansa, and it refunded $135 in taxes and fees and offered me a 20 percent flight credit.

I think I deserve a full refund of the $950 I spent on my original ticket, as the Lufthansa website didn’t display the fare rules for the type of ticket I was purchasing. I have contacted the European Union’s consumer protection agency, and it has contacted Lufthansa on my behalf.

A: Lufthansa shouldn’t compel you to fly if you’re contagious, but its rules are no different from any other airline. In fact, this is a textbook cancellation, and the restrictions Lufthansa cited are fairly standard.

Most airline tickets are nonrefundable and can be changed only with a fee and a fare differential. That fee, which ranges from $250 to $1,000 on Lufthansa, often invalidates your credit, rendering the ticket unusable. It’s how airlines make money these days — they charge significantly less than a fully refundable ticket and then make up the difference in change fees.

You can make two arguments for a refund. First, you can claim that the fare rules weren’t displayed clearly. It looks as if the E.U. regulators have gone in that direction. Door No. 2: You could argue for an exception to its refund rules on compassionate grounds.

I believe the second argument is stronger. Lufthansa should be grateful that you stayed home, and it ought to return the favor by refunding your ticket. But here’s the problem: You can’t force a company to be compassionate. All you can do is ask, politely.

And that’s exactly what I did. I contacted Lufthansa on your behalf, and it offered you a full refund.

 

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at chris@elliott.org.

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