How to Get a Refund When Your Airline’s Wi-Fi Is Terrible

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How to Get a Refund When Your Airline’s Wi-Fi Is Terrible

If an airline sells you a service, you should be entitled to a refund if it isn't provided, but when is it not worth asking for one in the first place?

I asked this question last week when I had serious problems connecting to Wi-Fi during an American Airlines flight. The airline charged $17 for the privilege. I figured the hassle of getting the money back would cost more than $17 in time and hassle.

As it turns out, I was wrong. More than 100 readers proved me wrong after I asked them for advice in our weekly newsletter, Your Money.

Almost everyone who requested a refund because the Wi-Fi wasn't working properly got their money back. Many had even cracked the code that allowed them to make the request in under 60 seconds.

This week, I distilled their knowledge and spoke to major airlines and credit card companies who were willing to answer my many detailed questions.

First, some advice from the airlines on the fastest way to request a refund:

Go to care.inflightinternet.com. On this page, you can chat with a representative about a refund or contact the airline using the email address or phone number provided there.

I eventually asked American for a refund, not knowing exactly how. After fiddling around on the website for a few minutes, I found a way to email the airline. The response I received contained vague platitudes but no compensation.

Readers suggested another tactic: Find the email receipt for the WiFi purchase, click “reply” and demand a refund. I tried that too, and a few hours later I received an apology message and an “offer” for a discount code for a WiFi “pass of your choice” for a future flight. Following readers' advice, I politely declined the offer. The response said my refund had been processed.

According to American Airlines, the best place to request refunds from any of the three Wi-Fi providers is the Wi-Fi and Connectivity page on the airline's website.

Delta is rolling out free Wi-Fi for members of its frequent flyer program on all flights this year and next, and more than 700 aircraft already have it. Those who paid and want to request a refund should go to delta.com/wifi and click on “Customer Support.”

Internet access is free on this airline, but flight crew may, at their discretion, offer a $15 credit if there are any issues with the Wi-Fi (or anything else).

There is a page on the airline website just for Wi-Fi refunds.

Email the airline at: support.southwest.com/helpcenter/s/email-us. Keep in mind, though, that sometimes the airline will proactively send refunds if they know things didn't work out well.

United will also email a refund notice if it identifies problems. If you had Wi-Fi issues, the airline asks you to wait a few days for that notice. If you don't receive one, go to the refunds page on the website.

If you're having issues with flights on a regional airline partner, you'll need to contact Intelsat, the Wi-Fi provider. Not sure if it's a United flight or a partner? When you purchase the service, the Wi-Fi provider's name should be listed on the receipt.

Is it worth asking flight attendants for help?

Yes, they may be able to reboot the system and get the WiFi working again or improve it. With some airlines, they may also be able to offer compensation immediately.

How bad does the WiFi have to be before I can ask for a refund without acting like an idiot?

I thought Alaska’s answer was reasonable:

“Although we don't have a set policy on this, we would define poor Wi-Fi as if at any point during the flight the connection is lost for more than 20 minutes, movies or video clips cannot be streamed without multiple buffering, or emails cannot be sent or received consistently,” spokesman Cameron Greenberg said in an email.

What happens if I simply click on the email confirmation I received when I purchased WiFi and request a refund?

This can work, and it worked for me with American.

Can I defend myself if a voucher or frequent flyer miles are initially offered as compensation?

Yes, this often works, as I found with American. It's worth a try because a refund means you get your money back, while miles and vouchers are easily forgotten. And the worst that can happen is that you get “no” as an answer.

Why not just charge WiFi fees to your credit card company if their customer service is better than the airline's?

Basically, you should first give each service provider a chance to fix the problem.

However, I understand that it's tempting to go directly to the card issuer. As I reported in a column over a decade ago about the art and science of using the credit card company to resolve disputes over purchases with merchants, some industry observers believe that large banks automatically extend credit to their customers when there are disputes over such small dollar amounts. In other words, they may not even bother to contact the merchant.

The airlines I spoke with did not comment. Capital One and American Express said they investigate each dispute. Citi, which partners with American on several credit cards, declined to answer the question. Chase did not respond.

Do airlines ever refuse to refund Wi-Fi costs?

Apparently rare. But that's not an invitation to deceive them. They might be keeping an eye on you.

“When a guest contacts us, our provider investigates their complaint,” said Mr. Greenberg of Alaska. That includes checking whether the passenger has used “significantly” more data than other passengers.