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Spirit Airlines refunds money to dying man

American Legion Post 14 commander Meekins sits with picket signs last month outside the Spirit Airlines ticket counter at Tampa International Airport.
American Legion Post 14 commander Meekins sits with picket signs last month outside the Spirit Airlines ticket counter at Tampa International Airport.
Published May 5, 2012

Jerry Meekins will finally be getting a refund from Spirit Airlines.

Buckling after weeks of public pressure and national criticism, Spirit Airlines chief executive officer Ben Baldanza called Meekins on Friday afternoon to tell him the airline will reimburse him for a ticket he bought before he found out he would soon die from cancer.

Spirit had originally denied the 76-year-old Vietnam veteran's request for his money back, arguing that the airline's no refund policy was necessary to keep prices low and fair for all customers.

"Every day we seek to balance customer service with customers' demands for the lowest airfare possible," Baldanza said in a statement Friday. "But sometimes we make mistakes. In my statements regarding Mr. Meekins' request for a refund, I failed to explain why our policy on refunds makes Spirit Airlines the only affordable choice for so many travelers, and I did not demonstrate the respect or the compassion that I should have, given his medical condition and his service to our country."

Baldanza said he will personally issue Meekins a refund of $197 and make a $5,000 donation in Meekins' name to the Wounded Warrior Project, his charity of choice.

"All of us at Spirit Airlines extend our prayers and best wishes to Mr. Meekins," Baldanza said.

Meekins is thrilled.

"I won," he said, laughing.

The Tampa Bay Times first reported Meekins' story April 22, and it has since been picked up by national media outlets such as CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.

In mid March, Meekins, who lives in Clearwater, booked a ticket to Atlantic City to visit his daughter, who was having surgery. He needed to be there to drive her home from the hospital and take care of her during her recovery.

Just two weeks after purchasing the ticket, Meekins, who has been suffering from esophageal cancer for two years, found out his case was terminal. His doctors told him he only had a few months left to live, and his immune system was too compromised for him to fly.

When Meekins called Spirit to ask for a refund — armed with medical information, hospice information and his pre-paid funeral package as proof of his condition — the airline told him it was against company policy to issue refunds.

No exceptions.

Calls and emails have been pouring in from people offering to give Meekins his $197 and help him get to New Jersey. Meekins said American Airlines offered to give his daughter a round-trip ticket to visit him in Clearwater after her surgery.

But Meekins always said it was never just about the money. He wanted Spirit to change its refund policy and show some compassion to sick passengers.

"If they call it Spirit Airlines, where is their spirit?" he asked the Times in April.

Spirit's business model is based on offering a very low base fare. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Spirit makes about a third of its revenue from fees.

Passengers pay to select a seat, buy a ticket online and pay $5 to get a boarding pass at the ticket counter. The Fort Lauderdale-based airline was the first to implement a fee for carry-on baggage, which is $45 — which was raised to $100 this week if customers wait to pay at the gate.

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Meekins has been telling anyone who offered to refund his money to instead make a donation to the Wounded Warrior Project, an organization dedicated to providing assistance to wounded soldiers.

"I'm sure I've raised several thousand dollars for the Wounded Warriors," he said.

He drove to New Jersey earlier this week and brought his daughter home from the hospital Friday afternoon, just before he got the call from Baldanza.

He said she is doing very well.