Julianna Lipschutz cancels her British Airways flight when her father falls ill. He eventually dies, and Lipschutz is left with the hope that the airline will refund her nonrefundable ticket. But a year later, there's still no refund. Is the airline going to keep her money?
Q: I need your help getting a refund for tickets I bought from British Airways for my father and me to fly from Philadelphia and London last year. Before we left, my father became ill and I contacted the airline to cancel our reservation. Shortly thereafter, he died.
British Airways requested a copy of my father's death certificate, which was sent to them. So far, despite several notes to the airline, I have received a refund only for the tax paid for the tickets.
British Airways has sent me a thank-you note for contacting them and advised me they would forward my mail to a handling agent. They indicated I would hear further from them once the case is completed or additional information is required. It's been more than a year since I booked the tickets. This is certainly a situation that requires an ombudsman. What can be done? -- Julianna Lipschutz, Philadelphia
A: I'm sorry about your father. British Airways should have refunded your tickets right away. But it didn't have to.
If your tickets were nonrefundable, as most are, and you canceled your reservations, then British Airways only needs to return your taxes and fees. It could be worse: Many domestic airlines give you nothing when you cancel a nonrefundable ticket. After all, it's a nonrefundable ticket. (Some domestic airlines refund taxes and fees, but most of them don't.)
Practically speaking, airline passengers rarely take a hit for the full amount of the ticket when they cancel their flights. Airlines offer credit, minus a hefty change fee, so the tickets can be reused.
I have yet to come across an airline that doesn't refund tickets for deceased passengers and their traveling companions, but there's no rule that they have to. However, there is a rule that your airline should offer a quick refund.
The Transportation Department's Fly Rights booklet -- available online -- details your airline's obligation:
"When a refund is due, the airline must forward a credit to your card company within seven business days after receiving a complete refund application," it says. "If you paid by credit card for a refundable fare and you have trouble getting a refund that you are due, report this in writing to your credit card company. If you write to them within 60 days from the time that they mailed your first monthly statement showing the charge for the airline ticket, the card company should credit your account even if the airline doesn't."
I asked the Transportation Department to clarify its rule, and was told it only applied to refundable tickets, but that British Airways was subject to the rule.
Maybe it's time to broaden that regulation a little. I've dealt with numerous legitimate refund requests from passengers of European airlines, who say they had to wait months, and sometimes years, for their money back.
How could you have prevented a one-year wait? Applying gentle but firm pressure on British Airways would have helped. (Here's a tip: write, but don't call.) If you booked your ticket through a travel agent, then asking your agent for an assist might have moved the process along. Most air travelers simply wait in frustration.
I contacted British Airways on your behalf. It issued a refund of $1,194 -- the price of both tickets, minus the taxes and fees you already received.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2010 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.