Travel troubleshooter: Refund for passenger with brain cancer?

  • December 1, 2012 - 1:25 PM

Q Last year, my husband and I bought round-trip tickets to fly from Pittsburgh to Houston on United Airlines. A few weeks later, my husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor. We originally thought he could make the trip, but after his biopsy, it was clear he couldn't go. His doctor wrote a letter stating he had advised canceling the trip.

United was sympathetic at first, saying we would receive a full refund. It asked me to send a request through its website. I received an e-mail a week later, saying it would allow us to cancel the ticket, pay a $50 change fee per ticket, and have up to a year to rebook the flights.

I called United and it said that it could either waive the $50 re-booking fee, or refund my husband's part of the reservation. I sent an e-mail back to the airline explaining that we'd like a refund of our nonrefundable tickets.

Quite honestly, my husband is in the how-bad-is-bad stage of the diagnosis process. There is no treatment plan yet. It is brain cancer. We have no plans to travel anywhere for the foreseeable future. Could you help us sort this out?

A I'm sorry to hear about your husband's condition. At a time like this, United should show some compassion -- or, at the very least, be consistent in its responses to you.

The rules of your ticket purchase are not in question. If you cancel your flight, you can rebook for up to a year from the date of your booking, minus a change fee and any fare differential. That rule renders many airline tickets worthless, because the change fee and fare differential is greater than the ticket credit.

But rules are meant to be bent. As a matter of policy, United will refund a nonrefundable ticket if you die or if the person you're traveling with dies. This isn't a hard-and-fast rule. I've seen airlines balk at refunding tickets even when they're shown a death certificate. Why are airlines so strict? Because the rule makes money.

United's first response was correct. When a representative offers a refund, be sure to get his or her name and extension, and if possible, ask for an e-mail documenting the promise. Sending a request through the website -- a necessary first step in resolving many airline grievances -- almost always results in a by-the-book form response.

Then United gave you yet another answer in a follow-up phone conversation. Pretty confusing, isn't it?

I think you would have been better off keeping your refund request in writing. After the form rejection, you could have responded to a manager and provided any medical documentation necessary.

I contacted United on your behalf. It agreed to offer you a refund, minus a $50 "processing fee," which was a better offer, but still not quite the refund you were hoping for. But when you called United, it agreed to waive all of the fees and issue a full refund.

Here's wishing your husband a quick recovery.

Christopher Elliott is ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog at, or e-mail him at

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