EXCLUSIVE: A dying former Marine has himself to blame for Spirit Airlines' refusal to give him a $197 ticket refund because he skimped on a $14 insurance option -- and giving in would be “cheating” other customers, the airline’s chief executive told FoxNews.com in an interview.
Ben Baldanza acknowledged the “tragic situation” of Jerry Meekins, 76, of Clearwater, Fla., who has terminal esophageal cancer, but stood his ground on nixing the Vietnam vet's request. Making an exception would be like an insurance company paying to fix a fire-ravaged home even though the owner didn't have a policy before the fire, he said.
“A lot of our customers buy that insurance and what Mr. Meekins asked us to do was essentially give him the benefit of that insurance when he didn’t purchase the insurance,” Baldanza told FoxNews.com by phone. “Had we done that, I think it really would’ve been cheating all the people who actually bought the insurance … and I think that’s fundamentally unfair.”
Baldanza said the $14 insurance covers a “wide range of unexpected events” and would have enabled Meekins to recoup his money.
"We feel very badly for Mr. Meekins, however, this is a country and society where we kind of play by the rules."
- Ben Baldanza, CEO, Spirit Airlines
“It’s fair and reasonable for us to hold our customers to be accountable to the choices and decisions and promises they essentially make when they buy a ticket,” Baldanza continued. “[Meekins] actively chose not to purchase the $14 insurance, but then after his situation changed, he wants the benefit of that.
“We feel very badly for Mr. Meekins. However, this is a country and society where we kind of play by the rules,” he added. “And he wanted to really not do that and that’s really not fair to the 10 million other Spirit customers and that’s why we made that decision.”
The Florida-based budget carrier offered Meekins a credit voucher that would have enabled him to change the flight for a fee, Baldanza said, but the former police officer solely wanted a cash refund.
“There just wasn’t a way we could do that without essentially cheating all the other customers at the airline,” Baldanza said.
Meekins, meanwhile, told FoxNews.com he has been inundated with phone calls from veterans across the country and has received numerous offers of cash, including a $197 handshake from “Fox & Friends” host Steve Doocy on Wednesday -- which Meekins said he would donate to the Wounded Warrior Project for injured veterans.
“It’s been tremendous, my phone hasn’t stopped ringing,” Meekins told FoxNews.com following the appearance.
FoxNews.com readers overwhelmingly believe Baldanza got it wrong: In a "You Decide" poll with more than 100,000 responses, 8 out of 10 readers said Spirit should have refunded Meekins' fare. But according to emails supplied by the company, some customers backed its decision.
“From what I see, the man bought the ticket because it was the lowest fare, rolling the dice on if he could actually use the ticket,” one email read. “Since he can't, it is nonrefundable, nontransferable, and he declined the insurance ... his gamble was bad. When I go to Vegas and tell the blackjack dealer ‘hit me’ and I get 22, I don't get to ask for a refund.”