An Abject Lesson in Crisis PR: Spirit No Refunds Means No Refunds!

This story is so compelling you’d almost think it was made up.

Jerry Meekins will die soon of esophageal cancer, and he can’t fly because of his compromised immune system. But Spirit Airlines considers his condition insufficiently grave to grant him a refund for a flight to Atlantic City next month.

But if he actually dies before his flight, Spirit would be happy to give him some money back.

…Meekins, 76, bought the ticket last month. His daughter is having surgery in May, and he wants to be there to take her home from the hospital and care for her while she recovers.

He has been battling cancer for about two years. But it was not until shortly after he bought the ticket that doctors told him there was no more they can do. He has only a couple of months left.

Because his treatments are breaking down his immune system, his doctors told him he can’t fly.

Oh, did I mention the guy is a Vietnam veteran who, despite his illness, still “volunteers every day as the commander of the American Legion Post No. 14 in St. Petersburg, devoting his time to helping other veterans”..?

Spirit says their tickets are non-refundable. And he could have purchased travel insurance.

Several other airline policies do mimic Spirit’s, refusing refunds for medical issues. Delta is one of those airlines, but a spokeswoman says “we recognize that there are exceptions and we work with customers on a case-by-case basis to do our best to meet their needs” — i.e. get a reporter to call and we’ll give you a refund rather than eat the bad press over it.

Spirit can’t be this bad at crisis P.R. Instead, I have to think Spirit does this on purpose. It’s like whenever Ryanair has been out of the news for awhile claiming that they’re going to make passengers stand up instead of having seats, and pay to use the loo.

In effect they’re trying to say, “We’re so cheap, we don’t give refunds to dying veterans who can’t fly up to care for their daughters going into surgery. So you know we’re the no frills carrier. And if you aren’t dying of cancer, you’ll save money booking with us.”

If you don’t mind being universally hated, you can probably make money.

(HT: uggboy on Milepoint)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community Milepoint.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. What part of non-refundable do the press and the public not understand? And why on earth would anyone buy a non-refundable ticket without insurance? Finally, why should certain categories of people (eg war veterans, single mothers or friends of journalists) benefit from getting refundable tickets for the price of non-refundable?

  2. It’s a sad situation, but you do buy insurance in a case like that. I think the bigger issue is that there are so many people who game the system, making up stories to try to get airlines to waive policies. The airlines really don’t have any way to check out such stories in any cost effective manner. Do you have a solution?

  3. I agree as well. Its non-refundable. If airlines give part or money back, its a gift or good will. Uf they dont, dont complain. Its non refundable.

  4. NB, I buy non-refundable tickets all the time without insurance, but yes, it’s a calculated risk, and sometimes you lose. If I were his friend I’d encourage him not to worry about the $197. If he was flat broke I’d give it to him, maybe even set up a donation for a limo so he has something to live for. It’s sad the media is enabling him to not let this go. He really needs to make the most of the time he has left.

  5. Wow. I’m surprised so many people agree with Spirit. I would think it would be easy for this man to “prove” his condition to Spirit and i would think they’d want to give the refund in the spirit of humanity.

  6. Spirit would have gotten a lot of mileage out of this. Airlines oftentimes make exceptions. I can’t imagine a mil $ company caring about a small amount.

    Spirit doesn’t have spirit. I disappointed that some folks have come down on the other side of this issue.

  7. Wow.. $197 ticket on Spirit? With fares starting at $9, it must be TATL or something. Yes people, non-refundable means just that.. not refundable. Even for about-to-die DYKWIA’s.

    And oh yeah.. as they say, you can’t take it with you..

  8. What a piece of crap journalism. What on earth does him being a veteran got to do with the situation either?

  9. I don’t know about you, but I don’t expect to get a refund on a non-refundable ticket. Nor do I expect to cheat death. I do expect to pay lots of taxes so those on active duty have all the supplies they need to go kill strangers in far away lands and so that when they retire they can have everything I will be denied, such as government funded retirement and socialized healthcare.

  10. “Well, it’s no trick to make a lot of money… if all you want to do is make a lot of money.” –Citizen Kane

  11. It’s a non-refundable ticket, Spirit doesn’t have to do a thing, obviously. I think this is a perfect situation to do something for someone, but I don’t think they care what any of us think.

    As for Travel Insurance, this wouldn’t have been covered under most plans since he’s been sick for so long. If he wanted insurance that would cover this is would probably cost too much to bother buying it.

  12. You sure have a lot of warm and fuzzy readers! Its a shame simple human compassion is so out of style.

  13. Why on earth is anyone surprised by this?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/29/business/29spirit.html?pagewanted=all

    Is this, as they say, any way to run an airline?

    Yes it is, says Ben Baldanza, 47, Spirit’s chief executive. A short, genial guy with wire-rimmed glasses and a big smile, Mr. Baldanza has one of those naturally booming voices that suggests he’s giving a speech in a banquet hall, even when his audience is two feet away. One recent afternoon, he sat at a round table in his office here, in a generic-looking industrial park about 25 minutes northwest of Miami, and explained his rather pitiless approach to cost-cutting and complaining passengers — particularly those who he believes have nothing to complain about.

    “We know that frustrations about Spirit exist,” he says. “To some extent, it’s about a mismatch of expectations. For years, in this industry, if you whined, we gave you something. You yell, we waive a fee. That’s created a general expectation that airlines will break their own policies — and we don’t.”

    You can tell that Mr. Baldanza gets a kick out of such tough-love pronouncements, and he isn’t bothered by the occasional bouts of Internet battering he has endured over the years. Most notably, there was the time in 2007 when he accidentally hit “reply all” to an e-mail message from a customer demanding a refund for a flight after a delay caused him to miss a concert in Atlanta — as well as money for the hotel and show. “We owe him nothing as far as I’m concerned,” Mr. Baldanza wrote in his response, which turned up on many blogs. “Let him tell the world how bad we are. He’s never flown us before anyway and will be back when we save him a penny.”

  14. If I were terminally ill, the last thing I would worry about is being out a couple hundred bucks over an airline ticket.

  15. I wish this guy would setup a Paypal account. Since according to the article, he might be driving now, I’d do my best to make sure a Vietnam vet didn’t have to pay for gas…

  16. My partner was diagnosed w/cancer in November & just finished chemo a couple weeks ago. In January we had a NYC trip planned and we had to cancel when we got the bad news. Southwest refunded the tickets b/c they were refundable, and we ate the cost of the non-refundable hotel room we booked from a coupon website (don’t remember which one).

    Sure, I asked the hotel for a refund due to circumstances, and they said no, and I left it at that. I understood when I purchased it was non-refundable. It was certainly not a time to worry about money (aside from the thousands it costs to get well).

    I sincerely hope that the fact that my partner is not a war vet wouldn’t have any effect on whether or not we got a refund either.

  17. Agree with all that although it is unfortunate, it is what it is. Although, this is the rub with Spirit. I feel bad for average joe flyers who only fly once a year.. They see the low prices from Spirit and get roped in, not knowing the all in costs. Things like this are part of the all-in-cost. In many cases, spending $10 more gets you on a major carrier who are more responsive.

  18. Are we all contract lawyers here following the law?
    Sheesh
    Folks despite the hardline approach its about human compassion and making exceptions on a case by case basis.
    I will never Fly Spirit unless its the last carrier standing.Mostly because it is a human no frills cattle car and to me that means bad value and a lack of comfort
    Thanks to Gary for bringing attention to the story regardless what side one chooses to take.

  19. Really, you think that Spirit and Ryan air follow the rules themselves? Really, I know of disabled pass who had their wheelchair destroyed by Ryan Air and it took them 3 years to pay for it! Or that they forced disabled Ryan Air pass to dial the UK = of a USA 900 toll number to request wheelchair assistance and fought the EU for years over this outrageous charge and discrimination. Or perhaps that they limit the number of wheelchair pass to 4 per a flight! Do they limit the number of blacks? Jews? Muslims? per a flight?
    Oh, and do a little research to see if Ryan Air and Spirt hold taxpayers hostage over landing fees or new routes to many towns and cities. THESE airlines never man-up and pay a cost until they try to get it waved, or reduced, or hold a city and its local businesses and citizens hostage!
    Really, are the people leaving comments here so dumb as to think that these airlines never ask for wavers and exclusions to all sorts of rules all the time? A rule is a rule for these companies until they scream and shout and ask for an exemption. Just ask the former employees and those who have dealt with these CEOs they are the biggest crybabies of them all!

  20. I am going to have to agree with most of the responses. While it is very unfortunate that the man cannot fly due to a terminal illness, he did not purchase the trip cancellation insurance which is pretty prevalent on the site ( I have flown Spirit before and have seen it.) Should have have forked over a few dollars this situation would not have blown up like this and why should a struggling airline have to lose a sale to someone that should have clearly purchased the insurance (especially knowing he has ill).

  21. I’d feel somewhat differently if he hadn’t known beforehand that he had cancer. But he did. Anyone living with cancer already knows they are living on borrowed time, so not buying insurance was stupid.

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