Why Airlines Leave Sick Passengers On Flights

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The child sitting by the window sneezed and coughed. Passengers nearby became increasingly nervous that the child may have Covid-19 and spread the virus. The mother declared allergies; the flight attendants said there was nothing they could do.

Sick passengers on planes became a deeper concern for travelers during the pandemic, as this scene was for a friend of mine. Controversy over how airlines treat the sick has grown, as they offer passengers a great financial incentive to fly when they are sick.

Most carriers in the United States, and many others around the world, charge travelers the difference in fare between their discounted advance purchase ticket and a new ticket to travel after recovery from a condition. disease. This often means an unrestricted one-way ticket, typically hundreds or even thousands of dollars more, that some travelers can’t afford and none are happy to pay.

“The pandemic has really underscored the need for a sick passenger rule,” said Charles Leocha, president of Travelers United, an advocacy group in Washington, DC. “Something has to be done to provide people with an affordable alternative. “

He faced the problem when he fell ill in Spain four years ago. Delaying his trip home would cost $ 2,000 in plane tickets, even though he had a note from the doctor who had just treated him in a hospital for infectious lung disease, as well as x-rays. Rather than wait for his fever and cough to subside, he got on a plane and soon after began to advocate for a rule regarding critically ill passengers.

Airlines argue that removing all financial penalties for sick passengers would mean anyone could extend a trip just by faking illness. This would upset the entire tariff structure. Need another day to close a deal? Meet a new friend and want to stay longer? Just tell the airline that you are not feeling well and travel when you want, as long as there is a free seat.

Requiring a doctor’s note has proven to be a weak deterrent in the past – just look at the wave of emotional support animals allowed by doctor’s orders purchased online.

Airlines for America, the industry’s trade group, says passengers worried about the cost of illness could purchase refundable fares at full price. The group also notes that many airlines have removed most change fees, which had previously been added to fare differences, and some have been more lenient in allowing ticket changes during the pandemic.

“Adjusting travel policies to offer vouchers and credits is an effort by carriers to meet customer needs and allow passengers to avoid traveling when they are sick,” a spokesperson for Airlines for America in an email. “We encourage travelers to contact their carrier regarding individual circumstances. ”

A Senate committee recently passed an airline industry health safety bill with bipartisan support that calls for the creation of a joint task force on air travel during and after the pandemic. The working group is expected to make recommendations on health, safety, security and logistical challenges for air transport.

In an interview, Senator Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat who co-sponsored the health and safety legislation, called the treatment of sick passengers by airlines “really insidious maliciousness” because it encourages dangerous travel.

“What they’re doing now is creating incentives for sick or contagious people to fly. It really can’t be good for their own employees, ”he says, adding that now is the time for airlines to reconsider their travel policies and penalties as carriers have garnered gigantic government support during the pandemic. .

Airlines have pushed for improved health standards and practices during the pandemic, trying to reassure customers that being crushed next to other passengers is safe due to robust ventilation and cleaning procedures improved. Studies have shown that illnesses can spread in cabins, with a higher frequency for people within two rows of an infected passenger.

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United got the Cleveland Clinic to approve their health standards; Delta is working with the Mayo Clinic on health issues. The two medical organizations say they cannot comment on airline policies regarding sick passengers.

“Our work with Delta aims to make travel as safe or as secure as possible, but of course there are limits to that,” a Mayo Clinic spokeswoman said in an email.

Some carriers offer accommodation for sick passengers. Singapore Airlines allows sick passengers to delay a flight and travel on their original ticket within the same season. A spokesperson for Singapore said the carrier had not had a problem with passengers abusing the flexibility offered to sick passengers.

Air Canada says it introduced a refundable fare called Comfort in 2018 that gives passengers more flexibility to change their plans. On a Houston-Toronto round trip in September, Comfort fares this week were almost double the lowest economy fare, $ 754 versus $ 388. A spokesperson also suggests that customers worried about having to pay more if they fall ill should purchase travel insurance.

Like the higher refundable rates, there is an additional cost to purchasing travel insurance whether or not you get sick. And if the illness is related to a pre-existing condition, many travel insurance policies will not cover the additional travel costs.

Mr Leocha, the consumer advocate, says he has no answer on how airlines should handle sick passengers because he expects people to take advantage of this leniency, as they ‘did with their pets.

“It’s a tough call. However, it is a call that airlines need to understand, ”he said. “Right now the airlines have no way of telling someone can’t fly.”

Write to Scott McCartney at [email protected]

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