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As part of my job, I helped my university to buy an airline ticket for a student from city A to city B. Due to the COVID-19 disease outbreak, the student decided that it was too risky to travel, and so he/she will remain in city A.

I noticed the following text in the electronic ticket:

TICKET IS NON-REFUNDABLE

NO SHOW PENALTY AT USD 250 PER TICKET

Questions:

  1. Will my university or the student have to pay a no-show penalty if he/she does not show up for the flight?
  2. Should I take the effort to cancel the tickets with the airline?

    Since the tickets are non-refundable, I am assuming that my university will not get any money back for cancelling the tickets, so there does not seem to be any benefit to us for cancelling the tickets.

(Note: city B is not yet a super high risk destination for COVID-19, so I don't foresee the airline allowing a full refund for the airline tickets.)


I explain what I decided to do in the answer below.

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    Look at the other side - if you were looking to travel to city B (with no knowledge of the student or university), but the flight was booked, when someone else cancels, that opens up a seat that you can buy. Extend the same courtesy to others. (Sure, airlines tend to overbook, but you can help solve that problem, too.) – FreeMan Mar 9 '20 at 13:39
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    @FreeMan - or look at it this way... airlines jump at the chance using any loophole they can to sell your ticket to an awaiting passenger. I have shown up on connecting flights 1.5 hours prior and ran at a good 7 min mile pace to the other terminal to meet checkin requirements to see that my ticket was sold and it was "too late for me to board". It is really really hard to take the airline feelings into consideration. – blankip Mar 10 '20 at 3:55
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    As a principle taxes must always be refunded. Probably canceling there is a way to get back those. – Paolo Mar 10 '20 at 9:05
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    @blankip I'll keep that in mind next time I'm considering cancelling a ticket on a flight you are trying to get on to. It's not for the airline's benefit that I made that suggestion... – FreeMan Mar 10 '20 at 11:49
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    it baffles me that people need to have a benefit to do something decent. Canceling not only helps the airline but also helps other people that might want to have tickets on a fully booked flight. It's just the nice thing to do, even if you would not have any benefit. – Ivo Beckers Mar 10 '20 at 12:06
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Non-refundable doesn't mean what you seem to assume - it does not mean that the money is lost. It means that you don't get it back.

That might seem an irrelevant difference, but often it is not - you can use the value of the ticket for further bookings with the airline (for the same flier, not just anybody).
If you cancel the ticket, you typically have 365 days (from day of payment, not day of flight) to use the value for another booking.

The no-show fee is a fee that gets taken out of your remaining value - if the flier simply doesn't show up (instead of cancelling), he will not get the full ticket value parked, but it will be reduced by the no-show fee.
So you should definitely cancel, as it will save the no-show fee. Only if the person is not going to fly within a full year is the ticket value completely lost.

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    Most useful answer from a practical standpoint. While there is the courtesy (to fellow passengers, not the airline) aspect discussed elsewhere that could perhaps be touched upon here too, this clearly illustrates a concrete benefit to canceling vs simply not showing up. – Doktor J Mar 11 '20 at 13:17
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Yes, cancel the ticket, especially since it's someone else's money that bought it. Cancelling requires no more than a few minutes of your time, perhaps less time than you needed to post this question, and even if you get no money out of it, it is courteous to the airline and to anyone else who might want to reserve a seat on that flight. On top of that, there's a chance, however small, that the airline will refund a greater portion of the fare for a cancellation than they would for a no-show.

As pointed out by user Azor Ahai in a helpful comment, you may be entitled to a refund of certain taxes and fees even if the ticket is not refundable.

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    Plus, can't you get taxes back if you don't actually travel? – Azor Ahai -him- Mar 9 '20 at 19:57
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    @AzorAhai: Depends on the tax. Sales tax is levied on all sales, and won't be refunded. Some use fees for the airport are literally that, and need to be refunded if you don't use the airport. – MSalters Mar 10 '20 at 10:27
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    @MSalters Yes, thanks for clarifying. I meant airport taxes and entry/exit fees. – Azor Ahai -him- Mar 10 '20 at 15:14
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Cancel the ticket

There is really no downside to cancelling with the airline but there may be some significant potential upside.

Read up on the exact terms and conditions of the ticket and the rules of the specific airline. "Not refundable" doesn't always mean you get nothing back. United, for example, allows you to bank the money for future travel although you need to pay a "change fee" with new money, to use the stored amount. In most cases that's significantly better than just losing all of it.

In most cases you are also entitled to refund of certain taxes and fees that you won't incur.

No-show penalty is typically taken out of the original ticket price/refund. No-show penalty + change fee will often wipe out the price of the entire ticket.

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Personally I would notify the airline about the change of plans because that will allow the airline to adjust their passenger manifest prior to the flight and not waste time/effort trying to locate the student when the flight is at the gate. It also allows the airline to fill the students seat with another passenger.

I am not familiar with the "No Show" fees. I did a quick google and came up with No show fee vs Cancelling? on TripAdvisor, and the suggestion there is not so much that you are charged the fee, but rather that amount is subtracted from the value of the ticket if you are asking for a refund or change of date. That aspect could be clarified by someone else.

But that leads to another reason for calling the airline. You could possibly change the flight (with fees) for up to one year later and benefit at least from some of the sunk cost of this ticket. However the ticket would still be tied to the student.

There was an interesting discussion about that latter point on the Workplace SE Being asked to return flight reimbursement after conference was cancelled and we recieved flight credit

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    because that will allow the airline to adjust their passenger manifest prior to the flight and not waste time/effort trying to locate the student when the flight is at the gate If the student doesn't check in, then they won't be doing this. Airlines rarely seem to page missing passengers these days anyway. – MJeffryes Mar 9 '20 at 13:06
  • @MJeffryes I hear it now and then when I'm at the airport. That might be for higher-class tickets or cases where the airport/airline is asked to page for the passengers, though. – JAB Mar 9 '20 at 22:05
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    @JAB - that would be for checked-in passengers - with a boarding pass - which the non-traveling student won't have. Tickets are used to obtain boarding passes either at the pre-security check-in with an agent at the desk or via mobile / at home printing. Since the student won't have done that (generally only available 24 hours before the flight) it will be a no-show – NKCampbell Mar 9 '20 at 22:52
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Several airlines have announced that they will waive change fees for tickets bought after the coronavirus outbreak. If the student calls to cancel, they may get the full value of the ticket as a credit towards future flights.

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  • Why would they do that? I've seen the opposite trend; hotels that normally offer refundable bookings suddenly charging 90% cancellation fees, which is understandable because the cancellations are financially killing them. – gerrit Mar 10 '20 at 9:41
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    @gerrit see yesterday's tweet from Delta that they are waiving change fees due to coronavirus. – Kirk Woll Mar 10 '20 at 11:33
  • @gerrit It's called "goodwill". When the epidemic subsides, they'll reap the benefits. – Barmar Mar 10 '20 at 16:31
  • @Barmar Apparently not so for hotels raising cancellation fees or insurances adding exclusions for pandemic-related cancellations... – gerrit Mar 10 '20 at 16:35
  • @gerrit Different companies have different priorities. Consider that Amazon has removed fake and price gouging products, and Facebook is blocking ads for face masks. I wouldn't be surprised if FTC or Congress cracks down on such price gouging. – Barmar Mar 10 '20 at 16:40
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In some cases the ticket can be changed instead of cancelled.

For example, I had a flight due with Singapore Airlines on work-related business. The work meeting was cancelled. I phoned up Singapore Airlines and told them this, and I was informed that because there isn't an official ban for that destination, and the ticket is non-refundable, I cannot get the money back.

However, they did offer to cancel the current flights and keep the booking so when I do eventually fly, they can give me new dates. All I have to pay is a small administration fee (several tens of dollars), and the price difference at the time, if such exists.

Contact the airline and discuss the options. Don't just disappear.

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Answering your second question, without the money aspect :

Having a passenger not show up puts some stress on airport staff as they'll try to find that person (announcements, double checking seats, passengers that checked in, etc.). This can also reflect on them negatively depending on their manager.

Cancelling the ticket means that you'll spare them the stress. You'll also spare the other passengers potential wait as the pilots will sometimes wait a few more minutes in case the no-showers are simply late.

Ignoring the money aspect, it'd be a nice gesture to cancel as you'll make the flight more comfortable for everyone else involved.

So yes, I would say you should bother cancelling with the airline.

(source: My girlfriend works as a boarding/check-in agent. )

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    Aren't those announcements and possible waits only relevant for passengers who checked in? – gerrit Mar 10 '20 at 9:41
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    I would advise rewriting to avoid the term "no-shower." On first reading, I thought you were talking about airport staff who had not bathed. In the US, at least, we tend to refer to the person who doesn't appear as a "no-show." One might want to avoid that for stylistic reasons, and I would be sympathetic to that preference, but I would then rephrase entirely ("when a passenger does not show up..."; "having a passenger not show up..."; or something similar). – phoog Mar 10 '20 at 13:36
  • I'll fix it -- not a native english speaker so to me it doesn't seem so off. – Hugo-Viallon Mar 10 '20 at 13:54
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I see it as an economics problem. Other last-minute travellers gain the opportunity to board a flight if I cancel. The airline gains some money (or, at least, it has a certain probability of selling the ticket and gaining money) if I cancel a flight I am not boarding.

However, none of that money gets passed back to me. So why should I opt to help the airline just out of goodwill? If the airline decides to change their terms and conditions and starts offering me money for cancelling, then I'm listening. They are the ones that started monetizing everything heavily (from flight prices to custom seating to business-class upgrades), so I don't feel bad at all. I'm just playing their game.

I would not feel bad at all in calling the company and asking them what they can offer me if I cancel my flight.

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  • Several of the answers point out that cancelling will normally lead to a greater portion of the fare being refunded or being made available for a possible future flight. It surely can't hurt to call the airline and ask for the details, but calling with a demand that the airline offer compensation for doing them the favor of cancelling the ticket seems like it would just lead to stress and aggravation. – phoog Mar 10 '20 at 13:41
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    @phoog It's only stressful and aggravating if you make it so. People negotiate all the time, for instance salaries, while keeping entirely composed and professional. "I am thinking of cancelling my flight; what would be the conditions?" Either: "You get back nothing, sir, sorry." Or: "we can offer you a voucher with the paid amount minus 250$; that makes 3.75$." "That's the best you can do? Then I'd rather keep my booking reserved, unless you have a better offer. Kthxbye." – Federico Poloni Mar 10 '20 at 14:20
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I decided to cancel the airline tickets, and I informed our travel agent about this.

Initially, she told me that:

Please be note that:

  1. The travel voucher will have to be used under the same passenger
  2. Travel voucher will be valid for 1 year from the date of issue
  3. New booking will have to reprice for the air fare, subject to fare and tax difference, airline terms and conditions applied.

Later, I got an email saying:

Just receive the updates from our airline contact, due to current situation and uncertainty for future travel, there will be a high chance to allow cancel and refund ticket that involves Spain.

Kindly acknowledge a ticket refund handling fee of (roughly 20 USD) will be charge per ticket in this case.

So in this case, it seems that due to the deteriorating COVID-19 situation in Spain, we will probably be allowed to cancel our tickets and receive a refund, minus the ticket refund handling fee charged by the travel agent.

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