07/12/2013 03:29 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How 'Bout a Refund For That Airline Fee?


Here's a question that's been on my mind -- and maybe yours, too -- since the revelation that airlines collected a record $27 billion in fees last year, a staggering 19.6 percent increase from 2011: Do they ever offer to refund those extra charges?

They're required to under certain conditions. For example, if you paid $25 for your first checked bag, and the airline lost your luggage, the government now mandates that the airline refund the fee.

How generous of the airlines.

But what about other circumstances? Like, say, the one affecting Emanuel Feldman's flight from Tel Aviv to Atlanta last December?

"After paying for this reservation, I realized I needed to stop in Baltimore for several hours," he remembers. So he changed his reservation to allow a brief stopover in Baltimore, paying US Airways an extra $200 for the privilege.

But it wasn't meant to be. His flight from Philadelphia to Baltimore was canceled, and US Airways rebooked him on a nonstop flight to his final destination.

Feldman wondered if he could get his $200 back. After all, he never stopped in Baltimore. Shouldn't US Airways refund the fee?

"I wrote to the US Airways office in Phoenix in January and was told they are working on it," he told me. "Having heard nothing by February, I wrote them again. No reply. I wrote again in April and again in May, this time to the CEO. Still no reply."

The refund is due

To me, this case looked like a slam dunk. Feldman paid for something he didn't get. It didn't matter what the fare rules on his ticket said, and it didn't matter what fine print the airline inserted in its contract.

I asked him to send me the written correspondence with the airline. He did, and it showed the letters from Feldman were unfailingly polite, but were met with form responses by US Airways. The airline promised him a refund as early as December, but six months later -- nothing!

Based on what I saw, I thought a prompt refund was due. Even though I had a few questions about his reservations -- did he cancel the ticket and rebook, or simply pay a change fee and any fare differential? -- I couldn't envision a scenario under which US Airways could keep Feldman's money.

This case also raised two larger questions: First, under what circumstances should fees be refundable to air travelers? And second, are airlines making it too difficult to get these deserved refunds?

A long, long wait

I contacted US Airways shortly after reviewing Feldman's letters. Seeing its promise of a refund was enough. Even if for some reason he didn't deserve to get his money back, US Airways had promised him in writing that it would return the $200. And it hadn't.

When it comes to refunds, the government isn't exactly our friend. Although it requires an airline to process a refund within seven business days, it allows for up to two credit card billing cycles to receive the money. That could take up to three months.

Feldman had been more than patient.

A few days after I reached out to US Airways in mid-June, he contacted me. He'd just received his credit card statement from May, which showed that the airline had processed his refund at last. Apparently, the money had been there all along (but alas, six months late).

"Please note your own power," he added. "The mere thought of getting a note from you induced them, even one month earlier, to do the right thing."

Ah, if only.

As much as this is a story about the refundability of fees, it also illustrates something we've known for a long time. Airlines don't like to return your money, even when they're required to by law.

A six-month wait for a refund, by the way, isn't a record. Here"s a refund that took one year. And here's one that took nearly two years.

This also answers my second question. Are airlines making it too difficult to get these deserved refunds?

You tell me.

Under which circumstances should fees be refundable to air travelers? To that question, we still don't have a clear answer. If you said, "When the service isn't provided," you're wrong. For years, airlines pocketed your luggage fee even when they lost your bags, until the government stepped in. Try getting a refund on a reservation fee after a flight attendant asks you to move seats to accommodate a family, or a ticket change fee after your flight's delayed, and you'll find out what Feldman already knows: airlines would really prefer to keep all that tasty ancillary revenue.

The fix? We need to incentivize airlines to repay us quickly by tightening refund rules and adding harsh penalties for pocketing our money. And we need to figure out a way to dis-incentivize them from charging these often outrageous fees and then keeping them.

Perhaps an equally ridiculous new "fee" tax would do the trick?

After you've left a comment here, let's continue the discussion on my consumer advocacy site or on Twitter, Facebook and Google. I also have a free newsletter and you'll definitely want to pre-order my new, amazingly helpful and subversive book called How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler (and Save Time, Money, and Hassle). Photo: Pio3/Shutterstock