Q: I recently booked a flight from Boston to Washington for my husband and me to visit my son for his birthday. My husband has lung cancer. Before our flight, he fell down a flight of stairs and was unable to make the flight. I'm so disappointed that we had to cancel our tickets, and I hope we won't lose the cost of the flight on top of everything else.
I called American Airlines to cancel the tickets, and sent a fax and letter from his oncologist explaining the reason. I don't want a voucher for the tickets. I'm not sure if we'll be able to use it, since my husband's health is so precarious. Can you help me get back the $445 we spent for our tickets?
— Susan Kaufman, Westwood, Mass.
A: I'm so sorry to hear about your husband's condition, and I hope he makes a quick recovery. Actually, that should have been American's answer to you — plus a timely refund of the $445.
Why should the airline refund a nonrefundable ticket? Because it's the right thing to do. Oh, sure, people will say that "rules are rules" (and indeed, they are). They'll say you should have bought travel insurance, which might have covered you.
Then again, maybe not. I'm betting a claim like his would have been met with a form rejection, noting that his cancer was a "pre-existing" condition.
Part of the problem with your claim was your level of technical expertise. You seemed a little uncomfortable using email and preferred to make your inquiries by phone and fax. That used to work for airlines, but not so much anymore. I think you might have made more progress by sending a brief, polite email to the right people at American with all of the necessary documentation. I list the names, numbers and email addresses of American's executives on my customer-service site: www.elliott.org/company-contacts/american-airlines/. Instead, you called and sent a paper letter.
That's not an excuse for American and the other airlines that have outsourced their call centers and stopped reading their mail. But it's just the reality of the situation. Next time, send an email if you can.
I contacted American on your behalf. It quickly and compassionately refunded the $445 you spent on your tickets.