Q: My husband and I booked a flight on the Northwest Airlines Web site from Cincinnati to Harrisburg, Pa. A day or so before the trip, I contracted a terrible virus, and so did my husband. We were unable to travel due to extreme vomiting and diarrhea. We were also contagious.

I called the airline and explained the situation. It insisted that I change my nonrefundable tickets immediately before the first scheduled plane was due to take off, or I would lose the value of both tickets.

A reservations agent told me the price of the tickets had gone up, so we were expected to pay an additional $60 for both of the tickets plus $200 in change fees. The penalty for getting sick was now $260.

I wrote to Northwest with a letter from our doctor supporting or claim. I said they would not have wanted either of us on that flight.

An airline representative wrote back to me to say they were “sensitive to our situation,” but they would make no exception and would be keeping their $260. Can you help us get our money back?

– Marilyn Walton

A: There’s nothing more disappointing than planning a trip, only to have to cancel it at the last minute because of an illness. Maybe the only thing that’s worse is carrying through with your plans and being sick and miserable at your destination.

Northwest Airlines should have been grateful to you for not choosing to fly in your contagious state, particularly at a time when planes are being held on the runway because of SARS worries. However, when I contacted the airline it didn’t express any gratitude for the compassion you showed toward your fellow passengers.

It turns out that you had booked a nonrefundable ticket online (a vast majority of the tickets sold are nonrefundable, so no surprise there). A nonrefundable ticket means just what it says – no refunds. A $100 change fee would apply to your rescheduled itinerary and if the price of the ticket goes up, you have to pay the difference. On the flip side, if the price of the ticket goes down, you’ll get money back.

You could have avoided this situation by buying trip cancellation insurance, which would cover the costs associated with missing a flight because of sickness. Of course, Northwest would have preferred you to buy a more expensive unrestricted fare, which would have allowed you a full refund. But that would have cost you about $800 extra.

Northwest Airlines was clearly uncomfortable with your request. If it granted you a refund, it would be bending its rigid “no waivers, no favors” policy meant to encourage customers like you to buy expensive airline tickets. If it said “no” it risked making itself look like a company with no compassion.

So I wasn’t surprised when the airline initially refused to let me know how your grievance was resolved. Only after I told the carrier that it would mean I’d have to get the answer from you did it agree to send me the letter.

“We sincerely regret your and your husband’s disappointment,” wrote Richard Edlund, a customer relations supervisor. “But we must respectfully decline your request that the terms and conditions (of your ticket) be waived.”

Edlund goes into some detail explaining that you were traveling on a nonrefundable ticket, and noting that tickets like that “cannot meet everyone’s needs.” He also pointed out that you acknowledged reading the terms and conditions when you selected your fare on the airline Web site.

He’s right. But I think I’d have a much easier time accepting his explanation if two things happened. First, the airline should have thanked you for being considerate enough to cancel you plans instead of infecting the other passengers. And second, Northwest should have offered reasonably-priced refundable tickets as a viable option on its site. It doesn’t. The fares are hard to find and they’re just too expensive.

Although Northwest is technically correct in refusing your refund, it is morally wrong for pushing a cheap, highly-restricted fare through its Web site, covering its bases by forcing you to scroll through the fine print, and then falling back on its contract even when you tried to act selflessly.

I guess when it comes to airline travel, no good deed goes unpunished.