Spirit Airlines denies dying Clearwater man's request for a refund

Carol Gray, 63, listens as her boyfriend, Jerry Meekins, 76, fumes over being denied a refund by Spirit Airlines for a ticket he booked to visit his daughter in New Jersey.
Carol Gray, 63, listens as her boyfriend, Jerry Meekins, 76, fumes over being denied a refund by Spirit Airlines for a ticket he booked to visit his daughter in New Jersey.
Published Apr. 21, 2012

CLEARWATER — Jerry Meekins will die soon of esophageal cancer, and he can't fly because of his compromised immune system. But Spirit Airlines considers his condition insufficiently grave to grant him a refund for a flight to Atlantic City next month.

But if he actually dies before his flight, Spirit would be happy to give him some money back.

Or he can get a credit for another ticket. That, he points out, won't do him any good.

"What are they going to do?" he asked. "Fly my casket up to Atlantic City?"

Meekins, 76, bought the ticket last month. His daughter is having surgery in May, and he wants to be there to take her home from the hospital and care for her while she recovers.

He has been battling cancer for about two years. But it was not until shortly after he bought the ticket that doctors told him there was no more they can do. He has only a couple of months left.

Because his treatments are breaking down his immune system, his doctors told him he can't fly. On Tuesday, he called Spirit's customer service line to see if he could get his $197 refunded.

He explained his situation — and was ready to turn over his medical files, including hospice information — but was told all tickets are nonrefundable.

No exceptions.

According to Spirit's website, death before or during the scheduled flight might qualify someone for at least a partial refund, but the airline would require a death certificate as proof.

Meekins is a Vietnam veteran and a former police officer. Although he is sick, he volunteers every day as the commander of the American Legion Post No. 14 in St. Petersburg, devoting his time to helping other veterans.

Meekins can't wrap his head around the lack of compassion at Spirit.

"If they call it 'Spirit Airlines,' where is their spirit?" he asked.

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 $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.

Meekins' goal now is not just to get his money back. He wants to make sure the airline does the right thing and puts a policy in place for the next time a situation like his arises.

"Certainly, somebody in that chain of command has to have some human compassion," he said. "Somebody has to."

Spirit spokeswoman Misty Pinson wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times that while all tickets are nonrefundable, passengers have the option to purchase travel insurance, which "covers a variety of unexpected circumstances."

Robert Mann, president of New York-based airline industry consulting firm R.W. Mann & Co., said airlines' policies on refunds for illnesses and medical emergencies vary. Someone in management would usually be the one to decide to make an exception, he said.

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"Some choose to, some don't," Mann said.

Michelle Agnew, a spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines, said that if passengers can provide proof of illness from a doctor, the airline will reimburse them.

According to their websites, Delta Air Lines and Allegiant Air will issue refunds if a passenger or family member dies, if passengers provide a death certificate. They offer no refunds for medical reasons on nonrefundable tickets.

"While Delta does have policies in place, we recognize that there are exceptions and we work with customers on a case-by-case basis to do our best to meet their needs," Delta spokeswoman Ashley Black said.

Meekins called Spirit's lack of a refund policy for sick or dying customers "un-American."

"It … burnt my a- -," he said.

But no matter what, Meekins said he will still try to get to New Jersey next month to see his daughter. He'll just have to drive, assuming he is still able.

"If I have to crawl up there,'' he said, "I'm going."