As coronavirus spreads, and fears about contracting the disease grow, airlines are increasingly giving passengers a chance to re-tool their travel plans by waiving change fees or allowing their customers to cancel even non-refundable tickets.
In many cases though, these opportunities come with some major restrictions. Most of the airlines that have issued waivers have only done so for specific city pairs, with further limitations on changes based on when the ticket was purchased and when travel is set to take place.
“Airlines that are not being flexible with customers are just asking for trouble. This is not the time for an airline to stick to policies that are designed for a time when circumstances are normal,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and president of Atmosphere Research. He added that right now, conditions in the industry are “not even in the same universe as normal.”
The decision to keep waivers more restricted is largely business-related for airlines. It allows them to encourage new bookings for passengers who might be worried about making reservations amid the rising coronavirus fears. But, that leaves some customers who made reservations months ago out of luck for potential changes.
“Some people are going to be inconvenienced, but that’s the nature of the beast. People are inconvenienced all the time. I believe the airlines are OK with inconveniencing a certain number of people, so long as it doesn’t become problematic for their bottom line,” said Ernest White II, host of Fly Brother on PBS and creator of the Fly Brother travel blog.
Still, Harteveldt said now is not the time for companies to be inflexible with customers who are worried about a spreading epidemic.
“If an airline is sticking to its policies, they’ll lose in the long run,” he said.
White said he understands the airlines’ business needs, but agreed with Harteveldt that the companies need to have compassion for their passengers. He suggested that airlines take each booking on a case-by-case basis, which many companies seem to be doing.
“When companies go the extra mile to try and be empathetic or recognize customer issues, it brings a lot of positive energy around the brand, people remember that,” he said.
For travelers, the array of different official and unwritten policies from each airline can be a confusing jumble, and that ultimately hurts airlines, too, Harteveldt said.
“Nobody likes being nickel-and-dimed and nobody likes being taken advantage of,” he said. “Consumers remember when companies are decent and fair to them, and they also remember when companies are not.”
Harteveldt believes most airlines will eventually issue system-wide waivers on change fees and cancellations while coronavirus remains an issue at the top of travelers’ minds. For his part, White wasn’t as sure. He said it’s important for airlines to be decent to their customers, but added that companies have some responsibility to protect their bottom line.
“It’s important for all sides to remember everyone is losing in this situation,” he said.
In the meantime, here’s what major U.S. airlines have said travelers can expect as of March 4 if their itineraries are not covered by an existing waiver:
American: No specific policy. Curtis Blessing, a spokesman for the airline said in a statement to TPG that passengers “can contact reservations if they have additional concerns.”
Delta: No specific policy. Anthony Black, a spokesman for the airline said in a statement to TPG that Delta offers “situational flexibility,” which, he said, “is always in play when there is not a policy to address a specific travel situation.”
United: Passengers who booked tickets before March 3 are not eligible to change or cancel their reservations if their itineraries are not covered by an existing waiver.
Southwest: The airline has a long-standing policy of never charging change or cancellation fees on any booking. “If a customer’s plans change, or they decide they no longer want to travel, the funds used to pay for their flight can be applied to future travel – as long as they cancel their flight at least 10 minutes prior to the scheduled departure,” Ro Hawthorne, a spokeswoman for the airline told TPG in a statement.
Alaska: No specific policy, but Cailee Olson, a spokeswoman for the airline, said in a statement to TPG that for itineraries booked prior to Feb. 27, “our agents are assisting guests on a case-by-case basis.”
JetBlue: The airline referred TPG to an online coronavirus post and did not provide a statement about bookings that fall outside of the published policy.
Hawaiian: No specific policy, but Alex Da Silva, a spokesman for the airline, said in a statement that “we understand guests with travel beyond current waiver periods could be concerned about their plans potentially changing due to the evolving COVID-19 situation, and we encourage them to contact our reservations team for assistance.”
For more on the coronavirus outbreak, see:
- What does the deadly coronavirus mean for travelers?
- Myth-busting: Will a face mask keep you safe from viruses on a plane?
- Extreme measures cruise lines are taking
Featured photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
WATCH: Coronavirus and travel concerns (provided by KHOU-TV Houston)
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