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Dead men don't fly

/ Source: Special to

When an airline says your ticket is non-refundable, does that mean you'll never see that money again? Not if you're flying on Northwest Airlines - and not if you're dead. But one widow's efforts to get the money back from Northwest hit a snag when the airline tries to issue a refund to his closed credit card. Find out what the airline definitions of "non-changeable" and "non-refundable" really are - and if Northwest makes good on its promise to refund the money to a deceased passenger.

Q: I am trying to get a refund on a ticket from Northwest Airlines. It was for my husband, who passed away earlier this year.

Shortly after his death, I contacted the airline and was told I would receive a full refund if I could show a death certificate. I sent my first of three letters on February 24, the second on April 15, and the third on May 27, none of which I have received a response to.

On June 22, I once again contacted Northwest Airlines and was informed it had sent a refund to my husband's credit card company in the amount of $288 on April 22. I had closed this account out in February and I contacted the credit card company and requested they review the account and confirmed that it was closed as of February - and there was no refund from the airline.

Can you help me get the money back?

-- Selma Odlaug

A: I'm very sorry for your loss. At a time like this, you should not have to worry about chasing down a refund from Northwest Airlines.

Your husband was flying on a restricted ticket, which normally means it is completely non-refundable and non-changeable.

But airlines often make exceptions. For example, during the latest wave of Atlantic hurricanes, many carriers allowed passengers to rebook their flights without penalties - even though technically, most of the tickets were non-changeable. And during the SARS outbreak a few years ago, airlines allowed passengers to change their plans if they became ill.

Death is one of those exceptions, according to the airline. "If a ticketed passenger passes away before the ticketed travel date, Northwest will refund the unused coupons of the ticket," says airline spokeswoman Mary Stanik. "But we reserve the right to require a copy of a death certificate."

That sounds reasonable.

But the real question is: who gets the money? In your case, the refund was supposed to go to his next of kin, which was you. So why was it sent back to his credit card? The most obvious explanation is that Northwest wasn't given explicit instructions and so it sent the money back where it came from - to the closed credit card.

You'll probably never have to deal with this problem again (at least I hope not). But if you do, make sure you tell the airline where to send the money. Also, it might be useful to keep the credit card of the deceased open until all accounts can be settled.

The other interesting part of your case is that it suggests just how flexible the airline definitions of "non-refundable" and "non-changeable" are. When an airline says "non-changeable" it means no changes unless there's a hurricane, you catch SARS or you're willing to pay a $100 change fee.

And when it says "non-refundable," it means no money back unless you die.

When you and I say "non-refundable" we take it to mean that we'll never see the money again under any circumstances. Even in death.

I think Northwest could have at least acknowledged your letters in a timely manner, particularly during a difficult time like this. I'm not sure what went wrong, but I believe the carrier could do better.

After I contacted Northwest regarding your question, it promptly refunded the ticket purchase - this time to the correct account.