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Why can airlines be so rigid on its no-refund ticket policies?

AP

Should airlines budge on "no refunds" ticket policies when it comes to dramatic circumstances?

That’s the question that’s being bandied about following Spirit Airlines’ seemingly heartless decision  not to refund the $197 price of a ticket to Jerry Meekins, a Vietnam veteran dying from esophageal cancer who was advised by his  doctor “not to fly” two weeks after he purchased the fare. 

The incident has generated bad press for the Fort Lauderdale-based carrier, with veterans groups calling for a boycott. But Spirit isn’t the first airline to refuse to refund customers –even under dire circumstances.

George Hobica, airline expert and founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com says it happens all the time.

“One of our subscribers reported a while back that her husband died just before they were scheduled to fly on US Air and the airline refused to issue a refund. But at least US Airways eventually gave in and returned the money. Spirit Airlines, however, is famously tone-deaf when it comes to public relations.”

Most airlines say that if there is a life-and-death situation you can always put in a request for refund, even for a non-refundable ticket.  United, for example, came up with this response when we questioned "Ask Alex," its online, automated travel agent about the possibility of getting a refund for a non-refundable ticket due to a death of a family member: "A refund may be requested on all refundable tickets. Please note that many tickets are nonrefundable and are not eligible for voluntary refunds; however a refund may be considered for nonrefundable tickets in certain circumstances."

Airline experts say while most carriers are watching their bottom line, being flexible on cancellation and other consumer-related policies help build brand loyalty—something that clearly Spirit doesn't seem to be focusing on. 

“Sometimes I think that Spirit believes any publicity is good publicity,” said Hobica. “And they know that for some consumers, all that matters is price.”

Al Anolik, a travel lawyer who has defended both consumers and carriers, says Spirit isn’t changing its no-refund policy because it doesn’t have to.

“The airlines are doing it because they know they can get away with it because it is hard to bring them into court,” says Anolik. “It’s not in the ‘contract of carriage’ that allows the airlines to do that.  He (Meekins) has no legal ground.” 

Although the federal Department of Transportation has made strides in improving consumer rights when it comes to air travel (for example carriers now must list mandatory fees and taxes at the point of sale) consumers are pretty much on their own when it comes to ticket refunds.

“If an airline sells a nonrefundable ticket and its contract of carriage does not make an exception for medical reasons, DOT does not have the authority to require them to provide a refund in a case like this," said DOT spokesman Bill Mosley, adding that it also has “no authority to set fares or the restrictions associated with their sale or use.”

So what recourse do you have if you’re the holder of a nonrefundable ticket in a situation with extenuating circumstances? Mosley and Anolik encourage consumers to file an online complaint with the DOT or call 202-366-2220. 

Failing that, there is always is the possibility of building support in the court of public relations, but as Spirit spokeswoman Misty Pinson said in response to Meekins' plight, that airline will not budge. “We do not make exceptions just because someone has a medical issue and goes to the media," she said.