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On the Spot: When a relative dies before using an airline ticket

If a relative dies or is judged by a doctor to be too ill to travel, it can be difficult, but not impossible, to obtain a refund from an airline.

November 04, 2012|By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times
(Reuben Munoz / Los Angeles…)

Question: Several readers have asked for information about what to do when a relative who plans to make an airline trip dies before the trip can be taken. Does nonrefundable mean nonrefundable?

Answer: When airlines say "nonrefundable fare," they usually mean it.

Except when they don't.

Don't get excited. This doesn't mean you'll get your money back if, say, you change your mind about going to (fill-in-the-blank place) because you're worried about (fill-in-the-blank anxiety-inducing issue). Keep in mind, too, that you can usually change your ticket — you'll pay as much as $150 for a change in a domestic ticket or $250 for an international ticket in most cases (Southwest doesn't charge), and you will also pay the difference between the new fare you're buying and the old one.

But in cases of death or an illness that grounds you by doctor's orders, "Most airlines do not want the PR nightmare," said Joe Brancatelli whose "Joe Sent Me" newsletter is the bible for business travelers.

That doesn't mean the airline won't require some documentation or that it won't be difficult about it. But, said George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com, you can usually shame an airline into action.

You may recall, for instance, that in May, Spirit Airlines relented and agreed to refund the money of Jerry Meekins, a terminally ill Vietnam vet whose doctor had told him not to fly. In his apology, Ben Baldanza, the chief executive of low-cost Spirit, said, "I did not demonstrate the respect or the compassion that I should have, given his medical condition and his service to our country. Therefore I have decided to personally refund Mr. Meekins' airfare, and Spirit Airlines will make a $5,000 contribution, in his name, to the charity of his choice, Wounded Warriors."

There was also the case of British Airlines' refusal to acknowledge a flier's request for a refund after his doctor told him he shouldn't fly because he was having chemo. The man began trying to get a refund in 2007. He died in 2008. His widow took up the cause and, after nonaction, turned to "On the Spot," which also got nowhere. Nowhere, that is, until the column chastising British for its three years of foot-dragging. She had the promise of a refund within five days.

Shame aside, be prepared to provide a death certificate (or a doctor's note if it's because of illness), and be firm but polite. You also may be asked to pay a small fee.

Before you head down this refund path, try to figure out how the ticket was paid for. American Airlines recently responded to our request for help for a reader whose father had died before he'd had a chance to make an airline trip. The refund wasn't showing up, even though American said it had been issued.

American had, in fact, done what it said it had, but the son didn't know it. It turns out that the father's ticket had been booked using "convertible," or credit card reward points, and the ticket was booked through the credit card company's travel agency. American had refunded the points and, ultimately, the credit card company, alerted to the issue, refunded the points to the son, but not until the son pointed this out. He chalked it up to a learning experience, but his situation pointed out yet another of the many not-so-obvious facets of dealing with finances after a loved one's death.

If a loved one dies, keep in mind that you may be able to inherit his or her miles. There may be fees involved, so check with the airline. Those miles do have value for goods or services, and if you are the inheriting individual, you may be able to use them for a celebration of life.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.

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