Is Spirit Airlines Making the Right Call Not Refunding Dying Vet?


So much for putting the customer first, says Jerry Meekins.

Spirit Airlines caused a stir this weekend in refusing to refund the dying Vietnam vet $197 for an airline ticket he cannot use after his doctor would not allow him to fly.

Meekins, 76, of Clearwater, Fla., was hoping to receive a refund for the ticket after his esophageal cancer would no longer allow him to travel. However, Spirit issued a statement saying it was sympathetic to Meekins’ situation but said he did not purchase travel insurance and therefore could not receive a refund, reported.

The airline stood by its return policy and its “one-size-fits” all motto, amid much criticism. But when is it ok to make exceptions to your own business rules?

Cindy Rakowitz, co-author of the book Emergency Public Relations: Crisis Management in a 3.0 World, also written by Alan B. Bernstein, said the issue here is not having a blanket return policy, but rather Spirit Airlines lacking the empathy and willingness to bend for consumer needs.

“This is where having core values as a company is so important,” Rakowitz said. “You should have a commitment to ethics and compassion at the very beginning.”

A policy can guide you, she said, but be willing to look at consumers’ requests on a case-by-case basis, and always leave room for improvisation. Even for small businesses, bad press can and will harm your company, Rakowitz said.

“This is such bad PR—who would want to fly this airline again?” she said.

Cliff Courtney, EVP and chief strategy officer at Zimmerman Advertising said the move on Spirit’s part was a complete “disaster,” and shows the company has lost site of the basic principles of business. Any smart company should operate with people, service and profits—in that order— as their priorities.

“Let transparency be your guide,” Courtney said. “Every decision will be documented and shared in public scrutiny by the media. Also never be pennywise and PR foolish—there is a long-term effect to how you handle these situations.”

Spirit Airlines had multiple attempts to refund Meekins’ ticket fare, and chose to dig in their heels and stick to their policy, Courtney said, when they should have owned up to their mistake.

“Don’t be afraid to make a decision on a case-by-case basis when it makes sense,” he said. “The public is smart enough to remain loyal. “

Also, Courtney said to put your best customer service representatives on the front lines. Having robotic, scripted customer service employees will only frustrate your customers further. At the very least, Courtney said, Spirit Airlines would have had to refund every dying veteran his or her airfare if they requested—a niche group at most, and a win-win for both parties, he said.

“Make good when public opinion is turning against you,” he said. “It’s a no-brainer.”