Travel troubleshooter: Air passenger with detached retina denied ticket refund

  • November 9, 2013 - 2:00 PM

Q: I was recently forced to cancel a round-trip ticket between Chicago and Bangor, Maine, on US Airways, for which I paid $494, including a $50 seat upgrade charge.

About a month before I was to fly, I had emergency surgery for a detached retina. A gas bubble was inserted in my eye to hold the retina in place during the healing process. This meant that I could not fly or even travel to elevations over 1,000 feet. Two of the airlines on which I had flights — United and US Airways — asked for medical documentation of my surgery, which I sent them.

United fully refunded the cost of my ticket within days. But US Airways refused.

I have subsequently received e-mail notice of two $25 credits from US Airways (not yet posted to my credit card) which, I assume, is a refund for my seat upgrade. Not good enough. Can you help?

A: Exploding eyeballs are one of the best reasons to bend a refund rule. I can assure you that no one — and this includes your airline — wants any part of your face to spontaneously explode in flight.

US Airways’ refund rules are fairly strict, and they are strictly enforced. On a nonrefundable ticket, you or your travel companion, essentially have to die before it will return your money.

So how do you deal with life’s little uncertainties, like detached retinas? US Airways would argue that you should buy a more expensive ticket that can be refunded.

Unfortunately, those tickets can cost up to four times more than a nonrefundable ticket. At that price, you might as well buy a nonrefundable ticket and throw away the ticket if you can’t use it.

But US Airways, like the other major American air carriers, offers a ticket credit (minus a change fee) that can be applied toward a new ticket. Once you’ve recovered, you can re-use the credit within a year of your initial booking date. That would give you plenty of time.

I spoke with a US Airways representative, who reviewed your record. Turns out you had only requested a full ticket refund, which the air carrier denied.

The airline offered you a ticket credit and agreed to waive the change fee as a “one-time” courtesy, a resolution with which you were happy. I hope you get well soon.

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

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