Know Your Fare Rules, Because The Airlines Don’t (Tales from the Field)

Air Canada, Tales From the Field

When you buy a ticket, it’s not always easy to find out all the fare rules that apply, but it’s really important you do. We had a Cranky Concierge client recently who had an emergency,Air Canada Tales From the Field and Air Canada didn’t want to honor its own rules. Worse than that, not one person with whom we interacted even KNEW what the rules were.

This all started a few weeks ago when we received a note from a client who was supposed to depart on a trip to Europe in two days’ time. He had a heart attack and they were preparing him for open heart surgery. (I’m sure I’m not the only one who couldn’t believe he was able to compose that email.) Obviously, he wouldn’t be able to go to Europe, let alone get out of the hospital. He asked what his options were.

The ticket he had bought was on Lufthansa going out and Air Canada coming back. It was a ticket we issued on Air Canada’s ticket stock, so Air Canada was the one we had to deal with. Since the two are joint venture-partners over the Atlantic, the fares were identical in each direction including the fare rule wording. Could he get a refund? Right there under Cancellations in Section C, it said this.


Perfect. We would be able to refund his ticket using this provision. But a “hospital/medical certificate” wasn’t exactly clear, and we didn’t know if we had to send it to Air Canada or just hold on to it ourselves. In cases like this, we always contact the airline’s agent desk to make sure the process is clearly understood.

When I called, they immediately transferred me to the medical desk. Who knew Air Canada even had one of those? The agent I spoke with, Diego, was very nice, but he said that Air Canada doesn’t allow refunds due to illness. I asked him to look at the fare rules, since that clearly said the opposite.

He looked, and then he paused, and then he put me on hold. It probably took 20 minutes (though I wasn’t counting) before he came back to me stumped. He said this was incredibly rare and they hadn’t seen it at the medical desk. They couldn’t do anything, so he asked me to send the reservation over to Air Canada’s queue via our booking system and they would be able to handle. Great, so I did. And the response?


Um, no. You can’t just make up a policy that contradicts the fare rules you’ve filed. I tried again but was again told that we could not refund it because the fare was non-refundable. Great.

At this point, I planned to go to Air Canada’s customer relations desk, but first I went to Twitter. I’ve generally found Air Canada’s Twitter team to be helpful, and they were responsive this time as well.

It seemed they too didn’t know how to handle this. In fact, it took them two full days before they could get me a response. That’s when I finally received the good news.

Hello Brett,

I apologize for the delay in response. We will refund the ticket as soon as we receive a medical note from the passenger. Would you have that available? I invite you to send it to: Thank you.

I didn’t have the medical note yet since I was still just trying to get clarity on the policy. Now that I knew what I had to do, I sent a note off to the client to get the note, ready to move forward. Then, Air Canada changed its mind. This came in on Twitter.

Hi Brett, we’ve just been advised by our Finance team that it is not required for you to send us the letter. They suggested that you process the refund in Sabre (as you would for a death exception) and keep the doctor’s letter in your files in case there ever there was an audit, then we would request the letter from you.

We realize that you’ve been provided with different instructions but we feel that this would be the easiest process for you to follow in order to have this issue taken care of as quickly as possible.

Please let us know if you have any further questions regarding this ticket.

Have a great day!

Ok then. First, kudos to Air Canada’s Twitter team for working on getting the right answer here. But as you can see, it wasn’t easy to get.

We received the doctor’s note from the client, saved it in our files, and processed the refund in our system. It’s a good outcome for our client, but what about all the other travelers who find themselves stuck in a situation like this?

Always get those fare rules when you book a ticket. Then keep pushing if the airline fails to honor those rules. In this case, my guess is that Air Canada just copied-and-pasted Lufthansa’s rules without paying attention. (The rules are still the same, by the way.) But that’s not an excuse. Airlines have to abide by the rules they file, and it would be nice if they all made that easy.

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41 comments on “Know Your Fare Rules, Because The Airlines Don’t (Tales from the Field)

  1. Got it: get the fare rules. But… how do I do that?

    Since that was the inarguable bottom line of the column, it might be helpful to include a little bit about where those rules can be obtained.

    1. There is always an option to view the detailed fare rules during the booking process. The place and name of the link varies airline to airline. At least with American Airlines, it is not (as far as I know) possible to view the fare rules of your ticket after booking (which is totally ridiculous and ought to be illegal, a phrase I don’t use lightly).

    2. grichard – There is no single way for me to tell you how to get the fare rules. It will vary depending upon where you book it. Many here have given advice that works. If you booked through the airline, then you can often get it on the website during booking or over the phone. If you booked through an online travel agent, there should be a way to see the rules at some point in the booking process. A real travel agent can see them anytime you ask.

    1. GringoLoco – Oh don’t I know it. But they did tell me which language to use in an OSI to document it, so I’m hopeful it doesn’t happen. If it does, well, I’m sure you’ll hear about it here…

      1. I once named a cat Debit Memo after receiving 37 of them in the mail one day from PSA on a group booking. Thank Zeus for a great sales rep!

        (geez I just thoroughly dated myself)

  2. CF
    generally speaking, do you think north american airlines are more responsive to a public social media question/request/comment than to its airline desk (non-public), for example?

    1. IO – I don’t think so. I think you often have more informed, better motivated people on those social media teams though. That can make all the difference.

  3. My parents some years ago were going to take a trip to Canada, but needed to cancel do to medical reasons. Needless to say, getting a refund or rebooking was next to impossible, but luckily the ticket was refunded after enough pressure was applied.

    Thanks a lot Air Canada. EH?

  4. I’m a doctor and our team has gotten many refunds, or at least flexible changes for patients with unexpected illness, even without a fare rule. Usually takes effort but it’s a bad PR hit to not do so.

  5. In my career there are few things that have made me more money on a per hour basis than reading airline tariffs. The Tariff is the contract for carriage, and like any other contract, it is legally enforceable. The problem is keeping the tariffs current isn’t viewed as a money making exercise, so is often relegated to the ‘not important’ pile. I have found tariffs referring to things that the airline had ceased to do more than a decade earlier. The tariff clearly defines your rights and obligations,as well as the carriers rights and obligations. There are two things that have to happen however for the contract to be legally enforceable. You have to have paid for the ticket, and you have to have flown the first sector on the ticket. Once those two things have happened, the tariff is a legally enforceable iron clad contract.

    As a member of public you have an ABSOLUTE right to view the tariff at virtually any point the airline itself sells services. In addition the carrier is legally obligated to provide you with someone knowledgeable about the tariffs to assist you. (I wish you luck with that one). It is actually illegal for the airline to even ask your name if you wish to inspect the tariffs. They must be produced upon demand, alternatively, if unavailable, they must be provided in writing as promptly as practical at NO expense to the requestor. If that means the carrier has to pay Airline Tariff Publishing Company the full cost of a tariff set, plus the cost of FedEx delivery, so be it, that’s the law. (Yes, I forced an airline to actually do that).

    The carrier’s obligations are spelled out in considerable detail in Title 14, Code of Federal Regulations, part 221. I admit to having had great difficulty getting carriers to meet those obligations (hence the substantial payments)

    1. Matt,

      Just for clarity, is the 14 CFR Part 221 cite a typo? I know that commercial air carrier operations are governed under 14 CFR Part 121. (Part 221 does seem to be “Tariffs”, but just want to make sure you’re directing us to the right spot.)

      1. The important parts are 14 CFR 221.1, 221.3, 221.10 and 221.170 through 221.177.
        For Example 14 CFR 221.1 lays out the requirement for tariffs to exist, be on file, and be available for public inspection.
        14CFR221.3 requires all carriers to file and observe the tariffs
        14CFR221.10 is who is authorized to file and issue tariffs.
        14CFR221.170 through 177 define the locations where tariffs must be available, and the access for the public to the tariffs and the carrier’s obligations to assist the public in accessing the tariffs and/or providing copies of the relevant tariff. (I have yet to run into a carrier however that actually obeys the letter of 221.171.)

        1. > (I have yet to run into a carrier however that actually obeys the letter of 221.171.)

          If this is really the case, I am surprised that an attorney hasn’t started a lawsuit against the airlines. Seems like it might be a nice little money grab for the right lawyer.

          1. The problem is there is no attorney general clause anywhere. 14CFR222.171 is a Federal Regulation, and absent the AG clause, only the FED’s can do anything about it. They obviously cannot be bothered. If you have any doubts about my comment, the next time you check in for a flight at the counter, ask to inspect the tariffs and see what happens. Finding anyone actually capable of complying with 14CFR221.172 at the airport is virtually impossible.

            And for the record I am not an attorney,

  6. It is not that easy to “be informed” about fares. I tried to read the rules for a United fare…they are no longer on their site, a web search did not find them, I called the help desk and was told I could read them after I purchased the ticket…I finally found them on Expert flyer, but that is a paid site that most people would not be able to use.


    1. It may be hidden somewhere in a tiny, tiny link, but they have to give the fare rule to you when you pay for your ticket. Look for the term “Contract of Carriage.”

      The Contract you get when you bought your tickets is the one that’s valid, not whatever’s posted at the website at a given point of time (that’s handy, because unless there are legal changes that mandate that an airline does something, changes to the Contract are unlikely to be in the customer’s favor).

    2. United’s fare rules are available, at least when booking direct. But you have to go through a capcha to view them and they’re all in UPPER CASE which makes it difficult to read.

    3. gbarrett – Good point on ExpertFlyer, that is a good way to see it if you’re a subscriber. Though of course, it’s not always easy to interpret the rules anyway. (And yes, USBT, the rules are all filed in all caps since the GDSs don’t recognize lower case. It’s awful on the eyes.)

  7. Shows how stupid the person who transferred you to the medical desk was. That’s for passengers flying with speical medical needs, not rules on fares. Unless that last person had some notation put in to refund that ticket, you will be dealing with this again when their accounting department dings you for refunding a nonrefundable ticket since it sounds like no one knows what they are doing.

  8. The medical desk said medical questions about medical emergencies were extremely rare? THEN WHAT DO THEY DO ALL DAY?!?

    1. I imagine that the answer is determine which people with what medical conditions can fly safely, and what accommodations they need to do so. Not in an emergency situation–more like “can this quadriplegic with this wheelchair and this ventilator fly in this jet?”

  9. I wish that with services like Apple Wallet or Google Now (or Google’s in-beta Trips application) that it’d download the contract when it learns about your trip (if possible – but I think some airlines still put a link to the Contract of Carriage in the receipt email so it should be).

    Otherwise keeping tabs on the rules is pretty difficult, especially for people who do multiple trips on multiple airlines.

  10. So where do you see this? I looked under my conditions of carriage for my last AC flight and couldn’t find this clause. It only had a section on death, not medical emergency.

  11. Fare rules: Written by lawyers, for lawyers, and you consumers…well, where did you ever get the idea that any of this stuff was written for you?

    And, then to get into what a doctor may or may not write about some misfortune you may have encountered, and like airline lawyers and doctors would agree on what anything means? (Fortunately, none of this type of stuff ever comes up in a Presidential election!)

    Anyway! My recent UA RT to LAS, I actually printed out the rule(s) for the ticket I was about to purchase. 11 pages. I noticed that there was one fare code covering the outbound part and a different code for the return part. The first sentence of the rules were: “The most restrictive set of rules applies to the entire itinerary” OK?

    No, I didn’t print out UA’s 47-page contract of carriage, but it’s there for you to do so! I think there is a section that reads: “We decide, and it’s final…we wish you a pleasant trip!”

    One interesting thing about reading the fare rules with UA (not sure how others handle it) is that you can access its website and read the rules ONLY before you purchase the ticket. After you purchase the ticket, your rights to see and review the rules vanish. Of course, you can call the airline on the phone and they will access the rules and read them to you, if you just know what to ask, but you can’t access yourself.

    Yes, I’m sure some of you will never forget all those pre-deregulation posters at every airport and city ticket office’s counters with a “notice of your rights to inspect the tariffs,” but now, in the domestic market, well, just forget it.

    Of course, if you live long enough, you will run into a situation where you get hospitalized and can’t take your flight. Now you have to deal with a combination of airline rules you’ve never seen and probably wouldn’t understand if you could see them, prove to the airline that you were really, really incapacitated during those hours when you should have been on the plane.

    OK, so are you trying to get a refund, because you didn’t and never will be able to travel? Prove it! Or, are you just trying to get the airline to not bill you a change fee when you try to use the value of your old ticket on something new.

    Whatever, you are in for a really long back-and-forth battle. The airline wants to show concern for your health and try to make you believe it is doing whatever it is doing in good faith, but ultimately you become convinced it’s nothing more than a pushing contest to see who gives up first, and you know who that’s going to be!. If you are determined and you have the time, you’ll win, something, but…was it all worth it! I eventually got my 2-$200 change fees refunded, but brother…!

    1. Actually the airline are STILL required to post the notice of tariff availability for inspection at essentially each location they sell tickets or freight Services. It is covered in great detail in 14CFR221.173. As I suggested in a previously reply, nobody at DOT can be bothered to enforce most of 14CFR221.

    1. There seems to be some confusion between fare rules and the contract of carriage, and I’m not surprised. The contract of carriage is an agreement between the airline and the traveler covering all travel. It’s an umbrella. The fare rules are specific to the individual fare purchased.

      SomeGuy – You’re looking at the contract of carriage, something which fortunately is far easier to find than it used to be. The internet has made life much easier. But the fare rules for this particular fare that our client purchased had the phrase in it allowing refunds.

      1. Oh, indeed. My bad.

        Near as I can tell there is no easy way to view AC’s fare rules outside of a paid ExpertFlyer subscription, or to be a TA. That really sucks.

        A few people on the AC FlyerTalk forum couldn’t match that wording to any AC fare basis, seemingly… I wonder if it changed recently of if it is specific to LH fares, or something.

        1. Yeah, it’s true. It’s not easy to find this stuff. Point me to the FT thread and I can chime in for them or you can just tell them this.

          This was a premium rouge fare. I’m not giving the exact dates and fare basis, so I just found one that matched the wording. Have them look at LAX DUB on 10OCT16 using fare basis NKXNC13S. Look at category 16, cancellations, section C. The wording is still there today.

  12. CF,

    One thing that nobody mentioned earlier… what significance does the word “may” have? I don’t know of any legal context where “may” is compulsory, as it sure seems to just provide the “option”, not to actually require a refund or rebooking.

    Second, since this is all about legalese and Matt’s assertion that airlines rarely bother to clean these up, how easy is it for the airline to claim that the provision is an error in the contract and therefore shouldn’t be enforceable?

    1. Dan – In this case, “MAY” is giving permission to the person who processes the refund. So the travel agent is allowed to refund due to illness.

      I don’t see how an airline could argue that its rules don’t apply. That would be very problematic for them.

      1. Problematic – yes. Probable – also yes. Let’s face it. The airlines pinch their pennies so tight it’s a wonder Lincoln’s nose isn’t crooked… except when it comes to executive salaries. They’ll do anything they think they can get away with.

  13. Brett,

    I was interested in this post because I too had a medical situation arise that required me to be hospitalized overnight while living in Shanghai in January of last year. I was supposed to fly on Air Canada PVG-YYZ-DTW later that month but I ended up flying the same itinerary 2 weeks earlier than scheduled so I could get checked out by American doctors. I had booked this trip via the AC website. The local (China) AC phone CSR didn’t know if I could rebook (and pay only the change fee) because this change was to be for medical reasons–and I had the paperwork to prove I had been hospitalized and cleared to fly. I called the US toll-free number and was told I’d have to pay the fare difference AND the change fee. After I had purchased what was essentially a new ticket my mother in the U.S. called AC and was told it “might” be possible to get an adjustment by contacting Customer Relations. I did so and was advised a few days later to email my request off to AC Revenue, which I did but have never received a response. A subsequent email a few months later has not gotten a response either.

    No one at AC ever informed us there was a “Medical” desk. I did look at Twitter but it seemed like @AirCanada only does self-promotion. Any suggestions what I can do at this point to recover all or part of the second air ticket since it’s been well over a year since the itinerary was flown? (I had booked it about two months prior to that.) Thanks.

    1. Hbeach – Are you sure that your fare allowed you to rebook without paying a change fee? I wouldn’t be surprised if the fare didn’t have that exception, since it was in the Pacific. In that case, it would be at the discretion of customer relations. As for Twitter, you can try to tweet them and they should respond. But since this has been over a year, my guess is that it’s going to be hard to get anywhere with this unless you can find proof that this should have been allowed in the rules.

      1. Thank you for your reply Brett. I’m not disputing the idea of being charged the change fee itself (although it would be nice if that could be refunded given the circumstances!), but to move my departure up two weeks (the return to Shanghai was unchanged) amounted to buying a walk-up fare, costing the amount of the original ticket! As you and some other posters who’ve had experience with Air Canada have pointed out, AC does not seem to have a uniform enforcement of the fare rules nor can the average traveler be guided towards those who may be able to help. Nor does AC make the customer service process easier by having a social media presence that monitors customer complaints like Southwest, Delta, United & American to name just a few.

        1. Hbeach – Well the standard practice if you’re changing the outbound of your flight is to reprice it at current fares and charge the change fee. So it seems like they probably did it right. The only thing we don’t know is if those fares have medical exceptions or not.

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