Does “Non-Refundable” Mean What We Think It Means?

Refund policy Macys Bridal SalonThe consumer advocate at The Washington Post has published a fascinating piece about the intricacies of trying to get a refund on a non-refundable airline ticket. It’s worth reading it for this nugget alone:

Several major airlines have a strict “no waivers, no favors” policy that only refunds tickets when a passenger dies. Next of kin must show a death certificate.

Okay then! But, it turns out, as Mike recently discovered, there are no rules, there are only guidelines. Depending on the situation, those guidelines can perhaps be worked with.

American isn’t completely mum on this issue. Nonrefundable tickets “generally” can’t be refunded, it says on its Web site. “However,” it adds, “exceptions may be available for refund of the unused portion of the ticket.”

They include the death of a passenger, or when a schedule change is unacceptable to the customer and results in a change of more than an hour to the passenger’s itinerary. In the absence of any other published rules, passengers are left to guess about the refund-worthiness of their airfare.

Airlines such as American may refund a nonrefundable ticket — as long as your story is compelling.

The various stories of regular people stymied while trying to get in touch with employees at American Airlines reminded me of the “Super Tech Support” segment of Reply All episode #33, wherein Alex tries to help PJ detach himself from the bureaucracy of — what else? — Handy. It all started when PJ, who I guess hadn’t read our expose, tried to sign up for only a free session of housecleaning, only to discover that Handy is like the Hotel California. You can check in, but you can never leave.

PJ: So there’s this one called Handy. Their rate was super super low and so I hired them and then maybe a month later I got a notification on my phone that said, Hey we’ve charged you for your next recurring Handy appointment. And I looked on my phone and I tried to figure out how to cancel it and I couldn’t figure out how to cancel it, so then I went on the website. There’s no way to ever cancel a recurring appointment on their website, like there’s no, there deal is you sign up for recurring appointments, they come to your house once a month and you give them money until one day you die. And so I tweeted at them, I tweeted at the company and said, hey there doesn’t seem to be anyway for me to get rid of your recurring service, and very quickly they responded and they said, no problem, give me your email address, and I gave them my email address and they said it was cancelled. But then, I said to them, they’d been so friendly and responsive and I said, hey it really seems like there is no way to cancel service on your website, is that true and if it is, why? And they disappeared and never said anything again.

ALEX: So is the super tech support that we are providing today talking to them and figuring out exactly how it is that you can cancel and why they make it so difficult?

PJ: YEAH. Like I know that a lot of web-based companies, that’s a thing, they try to make cancelling a service really hard, but doing it to this degree seems exceptionally diabolical. I just want you to go find out what’s going on, find out if it’s actually possible that my very cynical read on what’s going on here, find out if that’s actually true.

I won’t spoil the ending for you. Get some popcorn going and listen to the full saga yourself.

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