Airlines should err on the side of compassion

The Baltimore Sun

In the spring, I booked two sets of flights. One on United Airlines to Europe for my husband, 11-year-old daughter and me and a second trip on AirTran from Los Angeles International Airport to Atlanta for the three of us and for my 27-year-old daughter (who was traveling from Denver on the same dates and times to meet us in Atlanta). Both sets of tickets were nonrefundable. My older daughter became ill in May and died eight weeks later. Obviously, losing a child is devastating, and we had and have no desire to travel. When I contacted United, even though my deceased daughter was not on our itinerary, within two weeks, I received a complete refund. AirTran, on the other hand, refunded my deceased daughter's air fare but not ours. I was told I had one year to use the tickets and they would not, under any circumstances, give me a refund. Can you help?

Let's cut to the chase: A refund will be issued to the family, said Judy Graham-Weaver, manager of public relations for AirTran Airways. And she apologized for "any inconvenience."

Is the traveler really entitled to a refund? Customer service experts were of two minds.

Chris Ramey, chairman of the Luxury Marketing Council Florida, wrote in an e-mail, "Businesses must have rules and standards for difficult situations. There have to be limitations. ... In this case, in my opinion, it was fair and compassionate for the airline to refund one ticket and credit three tickets."

Alan Weiss, president of Summit Consulting Group, said in an e-mail, "Of course the airline should have bent the rules. ... A lot of companies will suffer when the economy inevitably rebounds, because they are treating everyone so poorly at the moment. People don't forget." Who's right? Both, according to an airline's core value.

"Is it operational efficiency or is it customer intimacy?" asked Anirudh Kulkarni, founder and head of Customer Value Partners, a customer relationship consulting firm. "You can do one or the other really, really well, but you can't do both really, really well."

He thinks the solution is a no-brainer: Do what it takes to maintain the customer relationship, either by giving a refund or by extending the time period in which the credit can be used.

Bad word-of-mouth can spread quickly. If your organization won't bend, he said, "you have just guaranteed you are going to be on the dust heap - it's only a matter of when." Being compassionate is not only the right thing but it's also the smart thing.

I think we knew that. I think United knew that. The only question now: Why didn't AirTran?

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