Kevin Hunt: Terminally Ill Patient Misses Flight For Health Reasons, Airline Wants $200 To Rebook

Kevin Hunt - The Bottom Line

The Bottom Line

6:02 PM EDT, October 17, 2013


Doctors have told Harrie Schmidt he has only months, maybe a year, to live. He does not want to spend that time in a nursing home in Seattle, where he has been living, far from his family in Connecticut.

His sister, Barbara Alex of Windsor, booked a Sept. 7 American Airlines flight for him and a caregiver to Bradley International Airport so Schmidt could return home and reside in an area nursing home. Alex bought a nonrefundable round-trip fare for the caregiver and a one-way ticket for her brother.

"He wants to come back to Connecticut, where he does have family before he dies," says Alex. "He is very ill: Frail, incontinent, and his legs are very swollen from the knees to his feet. He is able to stand for maybe 15 minutes at the most, but is in a wheelchair or bed most of the time."

But Schmidt, 67, has been so ill that he never made it onto the Sept. 7 flight. He was hospitalized the previous week, says Alex, and on the day he was scheduled to leave, Sept. 5, he vomited blood and landed in the intensive-care unit. That same day, Alex called American Airlines and asked if it could keep the tickets open and allow her brother to travel when he was able.

American Airlines told Alex she had one option: Cancel, book another flight and pay $200 extra in change fees for each ticket.

"I believe she also said there would be a rebooking fee," says Alex, "but by that time I was so tired and upset that I couldn't mentally process any more charges."

Alex says the American Airlines agent assured her the fees "really aren't that bad" because she might find less expensive flights. Because the caregiver worked full-time weekdays, however, he could only fly on the weekends.

"I don't think [the agent] fully understood the health situation, the caregiver necessity and the Saturday and Sunday flight needs," says Alex.

When she contacted The Bottom Line the day after the scheduled flight, Alex wasn't sure what to do. Book now or at the last minute, just before the new target date in late September? Go to Bradley and plead her case, in person, before an American Airlines agent? And what about those fees: Any way to get a waiver?

Alex provided TBL a copy of a note from Schmidt's doctor in Seattle that she also submitted to American Airlines in hopes it would convince the airlines to waive the fees. Before booking the original flights, Alex considered travel insurance but ultimately passed after looking at the terms.

"I highly doubt he would be covered," she says, "because of his pre-existing condition and the fact that he is coming home here to reside in a nursing home, which could be construed as coming for medical treatment."

Alex says she had 60 days to get her brother to Connecticut . If not, she'd have to resubmit the admission application at the nursing home. She also would be out of the country on vacation, unable to help, for almost two weeks in September. She had to resolve this.

TBL contacted American Airlines, which waived the $400 in fees and issued eVouchers so Alex could rebook online easily. She paid only $25 per ticket for changing flights. She was also told to call the airlines' Special Assistance program to arrange a wheelchair and oxygen for her brother.

"In a situation like this," says Matt Miller, an American Airlines spokesman, "when something is brought to us after the fact we always review it and make a decision based on the situation. So if this situation was presented to us again, it's likely we would waive the change fee again. But we don't have a hard and fast rule that says we do that. A lot of times it works out that it is not waived."

The same day American Airlines contacted Alex, her brother's doctor called to say Schmidt received another liter of blood, which should make him strong enough to fly Sept. 21.

So Alex rebooked, waited and hoped.

Schmidt, with a caregiver, finally made the cross-country flight. Schmidt has spent time at Middlesex Hospital in Middletown as doctors try to reduce swelling in his legs, but his official residence is now Aurora Senior Living in Cromwell.

"He has a nice, bright, sunny, clean room with a view of a tree," says Alex. "He said the level of care is a lot higher here in Connecticut than it was in Washington. Part of that could be that now he has an advocate, and family to visit regularly."

Harrie Schmidt, finally, has returned home.