By December 16, 2004 column
Special to msnbc.com
updated 1/10/2005 3:14:21 PM ET 2005-01-10T20:14:21

Colleen Wiles is looking forward to meeting her newborn grandson for Christmas. But because of a medical condition, the infant can't fly without oxygen. His airline won't let the family travel without a doctor's note, and the pediatrician won't write a note without oxygen. Now Hotwire won't offer Wiles' son his money back, citing its strict no-refunds rule. Is the family out of luck? And how could they have prevented this Catch-22 from happening?

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Q: My son recently bought tickets on Hotwire to fly from Salt Lake City to Louisville, Ky. His family was traveling home for Christmas, and it was to be our first opportunity to meet their newborn son, Alexi.

Unfortunately, there were complications at birth resulting in brain damage to the infant. Alexi's pediatrician was concerned about the oxygen supply in a pressurized cabin and recommended that they bring their own oxygen on the flight.

American Airlines said they weren't allowed to bring their own oxygen and that no oxygen would be available on the flight from Chicago to Louisville. The airline also requested a doctor's note for Alexi clearing him for the flight - which they can't get because oxygen isn't available on the plane.

My son asked for a refund on his tickets. American Airlines refused because the tickets were bought through Hotwire. Hotwire denied a refund, saying that American Airlines would not reimburse it.

How can American Airlines refuse to let my son and his family fly but not offer them a refund? It doesn't make any sense.

-- Colleen Wiles

A: Of course it doesn't make sense for an airline to refuse you transportation and then balk at a refund.

Think about it. What's to stop American Airlines from reselling your son's seat and making even more money from it?

It doesn't seem fair.

Maybe it would help to see this from the company's perspective. American offers these seats to Hotwire because it's surplus inventory. These are tickets that American probably won't be able to sell, so it offers them to Hotwire at a volume discount.

Hotwire buys these blocks of seats and then resells them to you at a markup. But there's a catch: those seats are nonrefundable to Hotwire. So if Hotwire has to reimburse you, it's doing it out of its own pocket, so to speak.

Hotwire's terms are clear. Its tickets are nonrefundable and the agency isn't able to "guarantee that the airline will be able to accommodate special requests."

Strictly speaking, Hotwire doesn't have to give your son his money back. Neither does American.

I feel terrible for your son. What happened to your family is tragic, and I honestly and sincerely wish Alexi the best. Needless to say, having a set of unusable tickets just adds insult to injury.

But your son really shouldn't have been buying tickets on Hotwire (and I think Hotwire would agree with me on this). Hotwire tickets are extremely restrictive - they can't be altered, refunded or exchanged in any way.

Once you click the "buy" button, it's a done deal.

I highly recommend Hotwire and the other so-called "opaque" site, Priceline, for bargain-hunters who are absolutely sure they will be flying on a given date (incidentally, Priceline now offers conventional tickets through its site, too).

But your son should have considered buying a ticket directly through the airline or with the help of a travel agent. The airline would have allowed him to reschedule his flight with a $100 change fee. I think an even better option would have been the travel agent, who would act as your son's advocate in the event of a problem.

I contacted Hotwire, and it agreed to review your son's file. Spokeswoman Amy Bohutinsky said a second look at his record suggested that this was a special case.

"Quite frankly, we thought we should show some empathy for the customer's situation," she said. "We have refunded the tickets."

Bohutinsky said Hotwire has also instructed its customer care staff to ensure that while its rules are followed, "individual circumstances are taken into account with each and every customer."

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