9:30 AM EDT, September 30, 2013
After Robin Johnson's husband is killed in a tragic accident, she tries to salvage his United Airlines ticket credit. But the carrier says it can't change the name on a ticket -- it's against the rules. Is there any hope for her?
Q: Last year my husband canceled a flight on United Airlines and received a ticket credit. A few months later, he was killed in a hit-and-run accident.
I have had a difficult time even focusing on things. I sent United an email a few weeks after his death, but months before his ticket credit was to have expired. I received a standard automated response that they would get back to me within 10 days on my refund request.
Actually, I wasn't even asking for a refund. I was asking, under the circumstances, that maybe they could reissue the ticket to me so that I could use it. I supplied them with all the documentation they requested and required. I still have not heard from them. Can you help? -- Robin Johnson, Sherman Oaks, Calif.
A: I'm so sorry for your loss. Airlines routinely refund even nonrefundable tickets when passengers die. But your request came during the last part of the merger between Continental Airlines and United Airlines, and it involved switching to a different reservation system for the company. So, while the representatives you repeatedly contacted may have wanted to transfer the name on your deceased husband's ticket to yours, it may have been difficult, if not impossible.
If you'd simply sent United a copy of your husband's death certificate and a request for a refund, then you probably wouldn't have waited three months for a resolution. But I get the sense that you were trying to play fair. The ticket was canceled, and according to the rules, you were entitled to a credit, not a refund.
But those aren't United's only rules. It also doesn't change the name on a ticket. The only exceptions I know of are large corporations that buy millions of dollars worth of tickets on one airline. Their contracts might allow for a name change, so that if an employee is reassigned or terminated, the ticket can be reissued under another employee's name. Alas, you had no such contract you could invoke. By asking for a name transfer -- by trying to minimize United's loss -- you were confusing the airline. I guess no good deed goes unpunished.
Even when I brought this case to United's attention, it had some trouble understanding what was happening, and said that your dead spouse should receive a full refund for his ticket (technically, his next of kin should get it, which would be you).
A representative told you your husband's ticket was "nonrefundable and therefore nontransferable," but that the airline sometimes made exceptions to its rules. This was one of its times. United agreed to transfer your husband's credit to you.
(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 firstname.lastname@example.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.)
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