Are Airlines Fees Refundable? Often You Have to Guess

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You probably assume that many airline fees are refundable if your plans change. Airlines assume the opposite: that unless they specifically say a fee is refundable, it isn’t.

The North American airline industry collected an estimated $8.2 billion last year from fees for items such as checked baggage, premium seat assignments and early boarding privileges, a $700 million increase from 2013. But are they keeping more of your money than they should?

Andrew Petrilla wondered about that after his travel companion fell seriously ill this fall. That forced both of them to cancel a planned flight from Dallas to Southern California on American Airlines.

“We’ve always been aware of the no-refund policy of the heavily discounted coach tickets, and we’ve always accepted that as a cost of getting the lower fare,” says Petrilla, a retired market researcher from Dallas. But not so for the $180 they paid for an upgrade to “Main Cabin Extra” seats, which have about the same amount of legroom as the coach class cabin before airline deregulation.

Petrilla was surprised when American pocketed his upgrade fee. It hadn’t disclosed the fee’s non-refundability until the last page of the reservation screen, he says. And it kept the money even though another passenger probably paid for the upgrade, allowing the airline to double-dip.

“This makes no sense,” he says.

Maybe not. But, at least according to the government, the refundability — or non-refundability — of these fees is perfectly legal, as is the way refund policies are disclosed. As the income from ancillary fees balloons, the cries for regulating these extras are bound to grow louder. Until then, you can protect yourself from fees by taking a few common-sense precautions.

Petrilla didn’t press for a refund of his upgrade fee because, technically, American had disclosed its terms. When he booked the ticket online, he could have clicked on the terms listed in small print, which would have generated a pop-up window with the applicable rules, according to the airline. Petrilla says he didn’t see it.

“The non-refundability is described in the terms and conditions when you purchase a Main Cabin Extra seat,” says Joshua Freed, an airline spokesman. He adds that refund requests are reviewed “on a case-by-case basis.”

But at what point should they disclose these terms?

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