Travel Troubleshooter: My husband's in the ER, why an $850 ticket change fee?

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Dear Travel Troubleshooter: My husband and I had tickets from Philadelphia to New Delhi on Virgin Atlantic this fall. We bought the tickets through CheapOair and paid $1,911. About 12 hours before the flight, my husband was admitted to the emergency room with severe stomach pains. Doctors diagnosed him with a small bowel obstruction and said he might need surgery the next morning. He had to stay in the hospital for two more days.

While my husband was in the emergency room, I called Virgin Atlantic to inform the airline that we wouldn’t make the flight. A representative cut me off and directed me to call CheapOair. I called CheapOair, which gave me the choice of canceling and losing all the money or changing the reservation to a future date. I picked a date 2½ months later, not knowing if my husband needed surgery or how long the recovery period would take.

CheapOair told me I had to pay $850 at that very moment and then take up the matter with Virgin Atlantic for a refund due to the medical emergency.

I have contacted both Virgin Atlantic and CheapOair verbally and by email. I’ve provided the hospital and physician reports to both of them. Both of them tell me that the other company has the money. I feel I am getting the runaround. Can you help me?

— Sunita Gupta, Voorhees, New Jersey

Answer: I’m so sorry to hear about your husband’s medical condition. In a situation like this, your airline and travel agent should work together to either rebook you on a future flight with little, if any, additional expense, or give you a full refund. No, they don’t have to, but it’s the right thing to do.

It doesn’t really matter who has the money. CheapOair, as your travel agent, should have tried to help you. I’m surprised that someone tried to charge you an $850 fee to reschedule your flight to a random date. Normally, when you make it clear that you have to cancel a flight for circumstances beyond your control, like an emergency hospitalization, an online agency will work with a special “waivers and favors” department to secure a compassionate refund.

Bottom line: No one should force you to pay an extra $850 when your husband is in the ER. I’m certain that if CheapOair had fully understood your situation, it wouldn’t have taken your money.

You kept an excellent paper trail on your complaint. It shows your agent and airline shifting the blame on each other. First Virgin told you it couldn’t change your reservation and asked if you had travel insurance — you didn’t, but that would have been a great idea — and then CheapOair told you the change fees were nonrefundable.

In this situation, an appeal to someone higher up might have helped. I list the contact information of the executives at CheapOair (www.elliott.org/company-contacts/fareportal/) and Virgin Atlantic (www.elliott.org/company-contacts/virgin-atlantic-airways/) on my consumer-advocacy site.

I checked with your online agency, and it turns out that it had no intention of sticking you with $850 in change fees. CheapOair offered you either a full refund or use of your original ticket value plus the value of the change fees as a future credit, valid for one year. You went with the full refund, and Virgin Atlantic charged you a less painful $400 cancellation fee.

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