Q: While my wife and I were in the Caribbean last summer, my brother-in-law passed away. I called American Airlines, and the airline changed our schedule to fly home early so I could give my sister support and help with last-minute funeral arrangements.

The American representative who changed our tickets was very understanding and indicated that she had to charge a $200-per-person change fee, but assured me that once documentation was provided I would be reimbursed the $400. That was the last verbal communication I had with American Airlines.

Since you can’t talk to anyone in American’s customer-relations department, I e-mailed the airline and received a reply late last summer indicating that a credit would be given as a one-time courtesy. I e-mailed back thanking American Airlines for its consideration. Since then, nothing. I e-mailed again in January, receiving the standard automated response every time.

“Customer relations” apparently means “no relations with the customer.” I would appreciate if you could help me obtain my refund.


A: I’m sorry for your loss. American was right to ask for documentation but wrong to ignore you. Right, because too many passengers have claimed that a relative died in order to take advantage of an airline’s policy of waiving fees (never mind that the fees shouldn’t even exist — I’m not going there today). But American was wrong to ignore your repeated request for a refund after you showed the proper documentation.

Here’s what hurts about American’s broken promise: It happened at precisely the time when you needed a little compassion, and indeed, at a time when a company agreed to help you. It’s not about the $400; it’s the principle.

I’m not surprised by the airline’s radio silence. That happens with every airline, but when you’re the world’s largest, as American is, it’s easy to get lost in the thousands of complaints. I don’t think American ignored you deliberately. As one of the most complained-about air carriers, it probably was just struggling to keep up with the crush of e-mails.

Still, it’s no excuse. After you failed to get a response, you could have appealed to one of American’s executives. I list their names, numbers and e-mail addresses on elliott.orgelliott.org.

I contacted American. The airline says it e-mailed you in August, asking for documentation of your brother-in-law’s death, but never heard back from you. I would almost believe the airline, except that you sent the documents several times. I think American just lost your file.

That’s easily remedied. You resent his death certificate, and American Airlines refunded your $400.


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.