Published April 30, 2012
After a weekend of brutal publicity over its refusal to grant a dying Vietnam vet a $197 ticket refund because his doctor forbids him to fly, Spirit Airlines issued a simple response:
The update from company spokeswoman Misty Pinson, when asked Monday if the company had reconsidered, appears to have grounded any hope that Jerry Meekins, 76, of Clearwater, Fla., might get his money back. Meekins bought the ticket to Atlantic City last month so he could see his daughter before she had surgery of her own. But when his esophageal cancer left his immune system too ravaged for travel, all the airline offered him was another ticket.
"What are they going to do?" Meekins asked the Tampa Bay Times. "Fly my casket up to Atlantic City?"
The airline issued a statement on Friday saying it sympathized with Meekins, but that making an exception to its well-known policy would force the cost of providing refunds on to other customers. On Monday, Pinson reaffirmed that Spirit is standing by its decision and its policy. She also noted customers have the option of buying travel insurance, which could help them get their money back, an option Meekins apparently did not choose.
But critics of the airline were outraged that no exception could be made for a dying man.
"Spirit airlines is the most ruthless, uncaring airline that shows callous disregard for its customers and, frankly, [CEO] Ben Baldanza would agree with this statement about his own airline," Kate Hanni, executive director of airline watchdog group FlyersRights.org told FoxNews.com. "They are a low-cost air carrier and all they want to do is grab those revenues at all costs. But when passengers need one ounce of customer service, forget about it!"
The airline, which has angered consumer groups with its pioneering charges for carry-on baggage and $5 fee for having a boarding pass printed at the airport, claim the no-refunds approach allows the airline to pass savings on to customers.
“At Spirit, we treat all of our customers equally and with respect,” the Fort Lauderdale-based carrier said in a statement Friday. “That means our non-refundable fares are non-refundable – for everyone.
“We are very saddened to hear about Mr. Meekins’ diagnosis and sincerely hope his health improves and that we have the opportunity to serve him again on his current ticket and many more flights.”
Other airlines have application procedures in which customers may be able to get their money back if they can show a reasonable cause. Hanni recommended Meekins file a complaint with the Depatment of Transportation.
"If someone is ill and they have a doctor’s note, airlines must refund their money," Hanni said. "That’s in every airline’s contract of carriage. Interestingly enough, remember swine flu? They don’t want sick people flying due to spread of disease. And if someone is dying, they also must refund their money."
For now, there appears to be only one way for Meekins to get his refund, and it is simply too grim to contemplate. Death before or during a scheduled flight may qualify someone for a partial refund, according to Spirit’s website. A death certificate is required as proof, although the carrier presumably relaxes the requirement for an in-flight death.
Meekins, a Vietnam veteran and former police officer, told the Tampa Bay Times that he couldn’t understand the airline’s lack of compassion.
"If they call it 'Spirit Airlines,' where is their spirit?" he asked.