Sunday, November 18, 2007

Why Aren't Airlines More Supportive Of People With Unanticipated Illnesses?

I know we made a choice when we bought non-refundable airline tickets last March for the trip we meant to take to Chicago in June. And then made the same choice when we bought another set of three airline tickets to Chicago for Labor Day Weekend, because we never imagined I could possibly still be sick three months later.

It was a choice. We chose to save money by buying the cheapest tickets we could find. Even so, we spent about $800 for the first set of tickets and $1000 for the second set, which is awfully spendy for a middle-class family with a young child and a lot of unexpected medical and daycare bills.

We canceled in time that we have credits for those tickets, but they expire a year from when they were purchased, which means the first set expires on my birthday, March 3, and the second set on June 8.

It's clear I'm not going to be able to travel by March 3. Even if I start getting better immediately, we're not going to want to risk a relapse/flare-up away from doctors who know me so soon.

I called United Airlines about those tickets in September. After getting switched to three separate departments, I was finally told to put everything in writing. Complicating the issue is that I checked us in on the Web on June 4 and somehow, when my husband called the airline to cancel our tickets on June 5, the person he spoke to only canceled our return flight. Somehow, United thinks we actually flew to Chicago on June 4. You'd think their computer system would be able to tell that our boarding passes had never been scanned at the gate. And that the headcount the flight attendants do would have been short at least three people. But no, their computer says we flew to Chicago, so we must have flown to Chicago.

I sent my letter in mid-September, explaining my situation and including a note from my doctor about my ongoing illness. I asked if, under the circumstances, they would consider allowing me to transfer the tickets to my brother's family so they could fly to visit us since we couldn't fly to visit them. If that was impossible, could they at least extend the expiration date to allow me time to heal?

Weeks went by with no reply. Finally, two months later, I get what looks like a form letter reply that essentially says the rules are the rules, and that's that. No extention of the expiration date. No transfer to another party. So sorry about your circumstances, but we won't even consider making an exception.

As much as that reply frustrated me, at least they responded. I wrote to American Airlines first, asking them to waive the $100 change fee as the reservations clerk told me they often do if provided a doctor's note and also whether they would consider extending the expiration date. What did I get back? Nada. One email acknowledging receipt of my letter and saying that response time could take up to two weeks. Of course, the email had a no-reply return address.

Back in September, I still had hopes we might be able to use the credits on American. My cousin's twin daughters are having their b'nai mitzvot over Memorial Day weekend, and we really wanted to be there for it. But Scott says he wants me to be healthy for six months before we travel anywhere, possibly longer depending on the condition my remission leaves me in.

It kills me that we essentially threw away almost $2,000, especially when money is so tight these days and our budget is much too far in the red.

I thought perhaps someone else could benefit from these tickets. I called the folks at Make-A-Wish Foundation since I know they have relationships with both airlines allowing their frequent flier miles to be donated, and I hoped they could pull strings I couldn't since it would be for charity.

But no. The Make-A-Wish folks say the airlines won't make exceptions for them either when it comes to these non-refundable tickets. I wouldn't even care if the airline got the tax deduction for it, I'd at least feel good that our loss was a sick child's gain.

So much for the friendly skies. I guess they're only friendly to healthy people.

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