American Airlines Refuses Refund for Parents of Deceased Child

American AirWhen a family tragically lost their nine-year-old daughter, they wanted to cash in their American Airline tickets for the vacation they had planned. But the airline refused.

The Cantrells' trip was just five months after Madison "Scout" died from an asthma attack. Her 13-year-old sister, Katie, didn't want to travel to their annual beach destination because it would be too painful. They requested a refund through the Airlines' online system and received a denial letter:

"After reviewing the documentation submitted, it has been determined the request does not meet our exception requirements. The ticket purchased is non-refundable so we cannot offer a refund, issue a travel voucher, or transfer this ticket to another person. The ticket will remain valid in our system for one year from the original date of issue, at which time it will expire and all value will be lost. [...] As a one-time courtesy, authorization was documented in your reservation to waive the change fee assessed when a non-refundable ticket is changed. [...] Your new ticket will be subject to any additional collection, if necessary, as governed by the applicable fares and fare rules in effect at that time."

The "Gulliver Business Travel" section of the Economist explains what happened next:

"By now, Gulliver readers will be able to predict with weary certainty what happened next. Which makes it all the more incredible that American failed to spot the inevitable chain of events that would follow. The mother posted the letter on Facebook, social media poured opprobrium on the airline for its heartlessness, and the carrier swiftly backtracked. As soon it started to feel the heat, American announced that it had apologised and would refund the Cantrells. But not before its reputation, such as it is, had already taken a shoeing."

According to The Consumerist, the decision is inconsistent with the airline's own policy:

"Nonrefundable tickets generally cannot be refunded. However, exceptions may be available under the following circumstances: Death of the passenger, immediate family member, or travelling companion."

Eventually, American Airlines came around:

"We extend our deepest sympathies to the Cantrell family on the loss of their daughter. We fully refunded [her] ticket last night and apologized to [the family] for not doing so immediately when she first contacted us."

Image source.

Discussion Starters:

  • How do you think the original decision to deny the refund happened, particularly if it's inconsistent with the airlines' own policy? 
  • The Cantrell family say they heard about the refund from news sources before they were informed by the airline. Why do you think American would handle the decision in this way? Was it the right move?
  • Assess the airlines' apology statement. Should the company say more, or does this suffice?