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After turbulence over death fee, airline flies right

Maybe Hawaiian Airlines isn’t as heartless as it appeared.

“We dropped the ball on this,” said Keoni Wagner, a spokesman for the carrier. “It’s a blunder that we regret.”

He was referring to the subject of my Wednesday column, Monrovia resident Jane Wilkens, whose mom died unexpectedly in September. The two had been planning a trip to Hawaii. But when Wilkens went to cancel, Hawaiian Air dinged her for $225 in “processing fees” before it refunded her first-class tickets.

I pointed out how this practice, which an airline representative called “fair and reasonable,” differed from that of Delta Air Lines, which fully refunded Wilkens’ money for a separate trip. For its part, American Express reimbursed Wilkens for Hawaiian Air’s $225 fee as a goodwill gesture to a bereaved customer.

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The column sparked a deluge of online comments and e-mails, both to me and the airline.

Typical of the responses was that of Jim Wilton, who wrote to say that he and his family fly each spring to Oahu aboard Hawaiian Air.

“Not this year,” he said. “If nothing else, the loss of my $2,000 will hopefully make up for the $225 they felt compelled to withhold from this poor lady.”

Hawaiian Air is Hawaii’s largest airline, carrying an average of 6 million passengers a year. In October, Hawaiian Air’s parent company, Hawaiian Holdings Inc., said its quarterly profit more than doubled to $19.6 million.

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After my column appeared, Hawaiian TV stations and newspapers picked up the story. Not long after that, Hawaiian Air’s Wagner was on the phone to admit that they’d screwed up.

“We will be apologizing to [Wilkens] for dropping the ball,” he said.

Wagner insisted that Hawaiian Air does indeed fully refund tickets to passengers who experience the death of a loved one, although it’s possible not all staff members were aware of the policy. “There’s a lot of internal discussion going on about this,” he said.

When we first spoke about Wilkens’ situation, Wagner defended the cancellation charge, calling it “a refund fee for processing the refund.”

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“There’s administration involved -- paperwork, computer entries,” he said. “The processing of the refund takes staff time that costs the company money.”

When we spoke again, Wagner said he hadn’t expressed Hawaiian Air’s policy clearly enough.

He added that Hawaiian Air would refund the $225 fee to Wilkens and would work with AmEx so that the credit card company got its money back.

I spoke later with Wilkens, who said she’d received an apology from the carrier.

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“They said it won’t happen again,” she said.

Consumer Confidential runs Wednesdays and Sundays and occasionally in between. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.


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