What Happens To Your Plane Ticket When There’s A Death In The Family?

There are all kinds of reasons why you might not be able to fly when you were planning to, or need to make a change in a scheduled itinerary. Unfortunately, one of those might be the death of a loved one. But now that most domestic airlines don’t offer special bereavement fares, many fliers find themselves dealing with airlines after they’ve already bought tickets to try to make changes. But because airlines don’t want just anyone to pull the “my grandma died,” often customers are finding the process of changing or canceling flights in these situations daunting, confusing, and well, a bit tacky.

Recently, Consumerist reader Stacy reached out with her story of trying to get a refund on a ticket change fee she incurred while visiting her terminally ill brother.

Originally scheduled for a US Airways flight to visit him on May 27, Stacy writes that she had to change her flight to an earlier date when her parents said his condition was taking a turn for the worse, so she could arrive in time to see him before he passed away.

When she called to make the change, she was told she’d be charged a $200 fee and any difference in fare. She asked if she the change fee could be waived in this instance, as it was an emergency. At first, she was told that it wouldn’t be possible, so she asked to speak with a supervisor to have the ticket refunded so she could buy a ticket with another airline.

After several phone calls escalating her issue, a customer service agent informed her that the change fee would be refunded if she submitted a letter from her brother’s doctor, detailing the emergency nature of the situation.

She paid for her new ticket, along with the change fee, and submitted the letter along with her refund request, which she was told would take 7-10 days.

More than two weeks after that — during which time her brother passed away — she checked on the refund and found that its status had changed from “in progress” to a message telling her to call US Airways customer service.

After a customer service agent investigated her request, she received an email from the refunds department informing her she would need to submit a copy of the original death certificate to “support a refund of the non-refundable change fee.”

Stacy was blown out of the water — she’d provided the documentation she was originally told would be required, and now this? Was she supposed to harass her brother’s wife and daughter while they were coping with his death to get a death certificate?

“This added requirement only proves what I suspected all along: that US Airways requires customers to pay for fees upfront so they can make receiving a refund so exasperating that most people will give up,” Stacy wrote of how she felt at the time.

In this instance, Consumerist got involved and US Airways did finally refund the change fee without requiring the death certificate. That’s good news for Stacy in this case, but what about other travelers with the same quandary?

We wanted to know which airlines do require such a document for otherwise nonrefundable fares — which let’s face it, is not something that’s easily provided and is often an impractical request when family members are dealing with a loved one’s death.

As it turns out, that information isn’t easy to find, if at all. We checked the web sites of the major domestic carriers to see if they listed a death certificate as a requirement for ticket or fee refunds, and often had to do some digging to find it, if at all. The information might be there, but would the average consumer see it?

So Consumerist reached out to each airline — if the policy wasn’t clearly stated during the ticket buying process or in an obvious place on their web site — and have included that information below.

This is what you can expect for fares that are advertised and sold as nonrefundable fares, but approaching customer service politely and clearly stating your problem can often result in a different outcome, as Stacy’s experience shows. And if you can’t get a copy of the death certificate, try offering to find a copy of a published obituary or reaching out to the funeral home to get an official letter, as some of the airlines below include as an option.

American Airlines/US Airways
Offer bereavement fares: No
Full refund in case of immediate family member death: Yes, in the form of a nonrefundable travel voucher (policy here)
Documentation required for any refunds: Death certificate

Southwest Airlines
Offer bereavement fares: No
Full refund in case of family member death: Yes
Documentation required for any refunds: “If the fare were nonrefundable and the Customer or family member requested a refund, our Customer Relations Department would approve the request with documentation (typically a copy of the death certificate),” a spokesperson told Consumerist.

United Airlines
Offer bereavement fares: No
Full refund in case of family member death: Yes — minus a $50 processing fee (policy here)
Documentation required for any refunds: Death certificate

JetBlue
Offer bereavement fares: No
Full refund in case of family member death: Yes — in “most cases,” a JetBlue spokesperson tells Consumerist.

“JetBlue believes in Inspiring Humanity and as such we seek to do the right thing whenever possible.
If a customer experiences the death of an immediate family member before travel, in most cases our Customer Support team will waive the cancel or change fee. If the customer is exchanging for future travel, the customer may be required to pay the difference in air fare.

If a customer experiences the death of an immediate family member mid-travel, our Customer Support can waive the cancel or change fee. Documentation and proof may be required in both cases.”

Documentation required for any refunds: JetBlue asks for the following — Funeral Home / Mortuary Name, Funeral Home Phone Number, Name of Deceased, Relationship to Deceased

Delta Air Lines
Offer bereavement fares: Yes — and it seems to be one of the only remaining airlines out there that does (policy here)
Full refund in case of family member death: It seems likely, due to the existence of its Bereavement policy, but it’s unclear. We reached out to Delta however, and have not yet received a clear response.
Documentation required for any refunds: Again, unclear.

Frontier
Offer bereavement fares: No
Full refund in case of family member death: Yes, or change fee can be waived (policy here)
Documentation required for any refunds: Death certificate OR letter from funeral home on official letterhead

Spirit Airlines
Offer bereavement fares: No
Full refund in case of family member death: Yes and no, according to a Spirit spokesperson: If you or your traveling companion passes away either before or during scheduled itinerary, if there’s no portion of that ticket used, there will be a refund on all unused segments of the ticket.

But otherwise, even if grandpa dies before you could fly to see him, “if a customer chooses to cancel a flight for any reason, they will not get a refund,” a Spirit spokesperson explains, something that is made clear when customers purchase tickets. “But because Spirit understands there are unexpected issues,” Spirit encourages customers to buy travel insurance, “for that very reason.”

Documentation required for any refunds: A copy of the death certificate, but “we don’t need an original, it can be faxed or scanned and sent by email,” the Spirit spokesperson explains to Consumerist.

 

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  1. CzarChasm says:

    I don’t really blame the airlines, people are pretty scummy nowadays, and if they could change a flight for free just by saying anything, most people would say anything they had to.

  2. jdgr says:

    I’m actually going through this with United right now. My grandfather just passed away while we are on a trip for my husband’s grad degree, so we had to change our tickets back to our home to get an earlier flight to my grandfather’s hometown instead. They are requiring the death certificate, so I had to ask my dad to get a copy for me just a day after his own father died, which was not something I really wanted to request. The change fees for both of us cost $400, and the “processing fee” of $50 is required for both fares, so that’s an automatic $100 that will not be refunded, which is especially unhelpful right when we’re incurring this additional and unexpected cost of additional rental car and airfare fees to then fly back to our own home after the funeral. Normally we’d just drive the 10 hours, but we were just caught at a really bad time when we were unusually far from home and from my family’s home, when we are regularly just two states away from my family. :( While I get needing the death certificate due to others taking advantage of these types of change-fee refunds, I do not understand the so-called processing fee United keeps, particularly when it is 1/4 of the actual change fee, above and beyond the additional cost of the ticket and other fees. It just seems like a shady way to charge a change fee of some kind while saying that they will refund the change fee with a death certificate.