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No refund for a sick passenger?

Christopher Elliott

Travel Troubleshooter

9:30 AM EDT, September 30, 2013

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After Merrill Hakim is diagnosed with lung cancer, she asks her airline for a refund on a nonrefundable ticket. But is that allowed?

Q: I have tickets on Aer Lingus to fly from Dublin to Paris. I was diagnosed with lung cancer a few weeks before we were due to leave.

I had no problem getting a refund for our transatlantic flight with United Airlines, but Aer Lingus was only willing to refund the taxes unless I could reschedule within 30 days. Given the situation, that was not possible. They said the ticket would still have been good until the end of April, which is when we bought them, but who can make a commitment at a time like this?

I have no idea what my situation will be in April or any time before. Not yet, anyway, and certainly not in the 30 days they were willing to give me. Thanks for anything you can accomplish. -- Merrill Hakim, Philadelphia

A: Good for United for refunding your non-refundable ticket. Aer Lingus should have done the same, but it didn't have to.

You booked a non-refundable ticket with significant restrictions. An airline will tell you that you always have the option of buying a more expensive ticket that can be refunded, but those tickets can cost twice as much as the non-refundable variety. For most leisure travelers, that's impractical (indeed, the tickets are meant for business travelers on a corporate expense account).

Airlines sometimes waive their ticket restrictions, issuing refunds when a passenger dies or a close relative of a passenger dies, or when you're in the military and your orders change. But again, they are not required to do that. A serious illness like lung cancer can be a reason for refunding a non-refundable ticket. In my opinion, it should be.

Incidentally, airlines let themselves off the hook from their agreements with passengers for all kinds of reasons, including bad weather or events "beyond their control." They aren't required to operate a flight on time, or at all, and the penalties -- if any -- are negligible. I don't have a problem asking an airline to waive its rules when it has little problem waiving a rule for itself.

I see that you tried to contact Aer Lingus by phone and then in writing, but the airline wouldn't budge for you. I sent you some higher-level contacts at the airline, but that didn't work either. The answer remained a firm "no."

I contacted Aer Lingus on your behalf and asked it to review your request one more time. It did, and decided to issue a full refund.

(Christopher Elliott is the author of "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. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at chris@elliott.org. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, and though he answers them as quickly as possible, your story may not be published for several months because of a backlog of cases.)