An American Airlines ticket-holder complained about the airline’s slow response to his request for a refund after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. (Alan Diaz/Associated Press)

Everything is negotiable, even a nonrefundable airline ticket. Consider what happened when Ryan Duffy developed complications from brain surgery, which forced him to cancel his American Airlines flight from Charleston, S.C., to Las Vegas.

Actually, calling them “complications” may be putting it mildly. “I had another seizure and they discovered a recurrence of a brain tumor behind my right eye,” says Duffy, who works for a beverage distribution company in Charleston. “I would have to have another emergency surgery.”

The seizure had also made him fall, resulting in a traumatic brain injury. Bottom line: Duffy wasn’t flying to Vegas anytime soon. He wondered if his airline might refund his nonrefundable ticket.

Most airline tickets bought by regular air travelers are nonrefundable, and airlines claim that keeps the cost of tickets affordable. If you want a more flexible fare, you could pay more. But flexible tickets cost more — a lot more — double, triple, sometimes even quadruple the cost of a nonrefundable fare. Only a business traveler on an expense account would ever consider buying one, which is exactly who those tickets are intended for.

But rules were meant to be bent, if not broken. Airlines sometimes make exceptions to their nonrefundability rules. Sometimes, they must. For example, the Department of Transportation requires airlines to either “hold” a ticket purchase for 24 hours or offer a full refund within a day, unless you’re within a week of your departure. Airlines also have to offer full refunds when they cancel their flights.

Neither of those applied to Duffy. He, like hundreds of thousands of other Americans who fly every year, was just too sick to travel. Travel insurance probably wouldn’t have helped him either; his condition would have been considered “preexisting,” which isn’t covered under most policies.

The terms of his purchase were crystal clear, too. He could either take the flight as scheduled or ask for a credit, redeemable after paying a fare difference and a $200 change fee. That would have eaten about a quarter of his $774 ticket, not including the fare difference.

He asked American Airlines for a refund. The response: silence.

“I’ve sent in at least three or four refund requests, only to receive automated responses,” he says. “On the last request, I was sent a reply telling me that it could possibly take 30 days for someone to respond. It’s been 60 days and I have yet to hear from anyone.”

Getting someone on the phone is impossible, he adds. “There’s no direct number to call and talk to an actual person in this department, and the only way to contact anyone is through e-mail or fax,” he says.

I asked American about Duffy’s request, and it agreed to refund his ticket. But it wouldn’t say why, or under which circumstances, it might refund other nonrefundable tickets.

“The current prohibition on granting waivers and favors now seems to be an inviolable law of the airline experience,” says one former American executive. He says the only exception is Southwest Airlines, which allows you to reuse money paid for a ticket without paying a hefty fee.

Years ago at American, he says employees had to famously ask for permission to say “no” to a customer. Now exceptions to the “nonrefundable” rule must be approved “at a high level.”

“All the major carriers hold pretty close ranks on that, lest a huge revenue source be jeopardized,” he adds.

How big a source? Almost $3 billion last year, up slightly from $2.8 billion the year before, according to the Department of Transportation. The top airline: American, with $875 million.

A review of the thousands of cases I handle as a consumer advocate suggests no discernible pattern to refunding nonrefundable tickets. A senior manager for a large online travel agency who handles refund requests says one of its biggest problems is that customers assume it’s the agency’s policy when a ticket can’t be refunded. Actually, it’s the airlines’ rule, and when the agent tries to advocate on behalf of a customer, “the outcome is rarely positive.”

Several major airlines have a strict “no waivers, no favors” policy that only refunds tickets when a passenger dies. Next of kin must show a death certificate.

But not all airlines take a hard line, at least not all the time. That even applies to American. For example, Sharon Terry tried to ask for a refund on her American ticket to Cancun, Mexico, earlier this year. Her doctor had diagnosed her with Stage 3 chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and hypertension and advised her not to fly. Terry received a series of form responses ending with one that promised the matter had been referred to “our colleagues in the accounting department.” She tried to respond to the message, but her e-mail bounced back.

“Their customer relations seems to be nonexistent,” she says. “I definitely believe they make it almost impossible for a customer to receive a refund.”

I contacted American on her behalf, and it refunded her tickets without a word.

American isn’t completely mum on this issue. Nonrefundable tickets “generally” can’t be refunded, it says on its Web site. “However,” it adds, “exceptions may be available for refund of the unused portion of the ticket.”

They include the death of a passenger, or when a schedule change is unacceptable to the customer and results in a change of more than an hour to the passenger’s itinerary. In the absence of any other published rules, passengers are left to guess about the refund-worthiness of their airfare.

Airlines such as American may refund a nonrefundable ticket — as long as your story is compelling.

Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United.
E-mail him at chris@elliott.org.

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