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David Walters' wife passes away before they can fly from Dallas to Midland, Texas. But when he asks his online travel agency for a refund, it refuses, saying the airline will only offer a credit. But dead passengers can't use a flight credit -- or can they?

Q: I recently booked a flight on Expedia (www.expedia.com) from Dallas to Midland, Texas, with my wife. She died before we could make the trip. I canceled her ticket and applied for a refund through Expedia, the online agency through which I had booked the ticket.

I furnished all the requested documentation, including the death certificate. After not hearing anything from either Expedia or American Airlines (www.aa.com), I called Expedia this week and was told that American had refused the refund.

The reason given was that all American could do was issue a credit for a future flight. But since my wife wouldn't be able to use the credit, they weren't even going to do that.

Now, the amount involved isn't going to break me, nor would it break American Airlines, but the bizarre reasoning for the refusal just smacks of lousy customer relations. On top of American's poor attitude, Expedia never informed me of the refusal of the refund until I initiated the call.

Sure I'd like a refund but you can bet your bottom dollar I will never darken the door of either American or Expedia again. -- David Walters, Plano, Texas

A: My condolences on the loss of your wife. Airlines routinely offer a full refund when a passenger dies, and your online travel agency should have been able to return your money when you sent it proof of your wife's passing.

The death of a passenger is one of the most common exceptions to the nonrefundability rule on airline tickets (the other is military orders). Once Expedia and American were informed of the event, the refund should have been more or less automatic.

Here's the problem: There's no rule that says your agency or airline must return the money. American Airlines' contract of carriage, the legal agreement between you and the airline, doesn't promise your money back. Neither does Expedia. It's just something the companies do as a matter of policy, because as you suggested, it's good customer service.

I have to admit; I'm a little puzzled by the offer of a credit. How do they expect your wife to take advantage of that?

The only reasonable explanation is that someone just wasn't paying attention when you filed your request for a refund. In this kind of situation, you need to appeal your case to someone more senior at either Expedia or American Airlines. I publish the contact names on my new customer service wiki, On Your Side (www.onyoursi.de). A brief, polite e-mail works better than a phone call and also helps you keep a paper trail.

I contacted American Airlines on your behalf. It responded lightning fast -- in fact, I've never seen an airline react so quickly -- and refunded your wife's ticket. A representative phoned you and apologized, adding that this was the first time the company had heard of your request.

Christopher Elliott is the author of the upcoming book "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. You can read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at chris@elliott.org.

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