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July 30, 2009

Airlines' Sick Policies Need Rx

Swine-flu-travel-protection-mask
Sick and traveling: To tell
or not to tell? Airlines don't
always make it easy to know.

Photo: Rescue Dog on Flickr
using Creative Commons

by Barbara S. Peterson

We just heard from a reader facing a tough decision: A day before his family of five was set to fly from California to Italy, his son got diagnosed with the H1N1 virus. But when he called the airline to see about delaying travel plans until the boy recovered, he was told he'd be slapped with a $1,000 change fee ($200 per ticket).

"I am not a rich person, but the $1K won't be the end of the world. I just wonder how families with less means would react. My guess is that most people would still travel knowing that they are sick if they had to eat the cost."

Duh! And, our correspondent went on, "It's interesting to me that the government and airlines do not take special consideration for [this] pandemic disease."

Good point. It seems that the airlines are talking out of both sides of their mouths when it comes to the swine flu outbreak. We're told that we shouldn't travel; indeed, the advice from physicians is to stay inside and away from the general public for at least a week. And yet when people do the right thing, for example inform the airline of their conditions, they get penalized.

In recent years, airlines have toughened their policies on medical excuses for waiving itinerary changes because they were being abused. But the old fake doctor's note trick was partially prompted by the increasing rise in these change fees, which started out small--around $50--and kept on rising to $150 and up.  Many consumers think it's getting out of hand: I've heard from fliers who have paid more to change their flights than for the original tickets.

Back to our family. We didn't get the name of the airline in this case, and the family, it seems, was leaning in favor of continuing with their trip because the son was feeling much better. In our experience, airline policies vary widely. I myself faced this situation this past spring when my daughter came down with the virus the day she was scheduled to fly to Maine. I called the airline, JetBlue, right away, explained the situation, and offered to provide a doctor's note if necessary. They waived the change fee, and the ticket value will be valid for a year (that part is standard policy). And once when I couldn't travel because I had had an accident the day before the flight, the airline, in this case, Delta, was equally accommodating.

Most airlines don't have a written policy; they'll take this up on a case-by-case basis. Readers, what are your experiences?

Further reading:
* ATA CEO Comments on Measures Being Taken Regarding Swine Flu
* The CDC has a whole Web page on travel and the swine flu
* The EU says airlines can't bar swine flu sufferers
* From the AA Web site, on customer service policies: 
Q: I have a nonrefundable American Airlines ticket that I am not going to use. Can I still get a refund?
A: Nonrefundable tickets generally cannot be refunded. However, exceptions may be available under the following circumstances: death of the passenger, immediate family member, or traveling companion; schedule changes implemented by American Airlines; in addition, certain illnesses may be considered if your ticket included international travel (along with travel to or from the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico).

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