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The Travel Troubleshooter

Passenger's eye might explode, but US Airways won't refund ticket

Christopher Elliott

Travel Troubleshooter

November 5, 2013

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Jennene Colky can't fly because she has a detached retina. Why won't US Airways refund her ticket?

Q: I was recently forced to cancel a round-trip ticket between Chicago and Bangor, Maine, on US Airways, for which I paid $494, including a $50 seat upgrade charge.

About a month before I was to fly, I had emergency surgery for a detached retina in which a gas bubble was inserted in my eye to hold the retina in place during the healing process. This meant that I could not fly or even travel to elevations over 1,000 feet. Two of the airlines on which I had flights — United and US Airways — asked for medical documentation of my surgery, which I sent them.

United, bless their little hearts, fully refunded the cost of my ticket to my credit card within days. But US Airways took a different view, refusing to refund the fare.

The facts are that my eye would have exploded at a high altitude, even in a pressurized cabin, and I had a letter from a retinal specialist attesting to this. If exploding eyeballs aren't a good enough reason to credit or refund the entire amount of an airline ticket, just what is?

I have subsequently received email notice of two $25 credits from US Airways (not yet posted to my credit card) which, I assume, is a refund for my seat upgrade. Not good enough. Can you help? — Jennene Colky, Oak Park, Ill.

A: Exploding eyeballs are one of the best reasons to bend a refund rule. I can assure you that no one — and this includes your airline — wants any part of your face to spontaneously explode in flight.

US Airways' refund rules are fairly strict, and they are strictly enforced. On a nonrefundable ticket, you or your travel companion, have to die before it will return your money. (To be fair, I've seen other exceptions, but they are few and far between.)

So how do you deal with life's little uncertainties, like detached retinas? US Airways would argue that you should buy a more expensive ticket that can be refunded. Unfortunately, those tickets can cost up to four times more than a nonrefundable ticket. At that price, you might as well buy a nonrefundable ticket and throw away the ticket if you can't use it.

But wait! US Airways, like the other major American air carriers, offers you a ticket credit (minus a change fee) that can be applied toward a new ticket. Once you've recovered, you can re-use the credit within a year of your initial booking date. That would give you plenty of time.

If for some reason you're having trouble reaching someone at US Airways, I have a full list of contacts on my site at http://elliott.org/contacts/us-airways.

I spoke with a US Airways representative, who reviewed your record. Turns out you had only requested a full ticket refund, which the air carrier denied. The airline offered you a ticket credit and agreed to waive the change fee as a "one time" courtesy, a resolution with which you were happy. I hope you get well soon.

(Christopher Elliott is the author of "How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler (and Save Time, Money and Hassle)" (National Geographic). 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, which he answers as quickly as possible, but because of a backlog of cases, your story may not be published for several months.)