If You’re Too Sick To Fly, Airlines Might Not Offer A Refund

Standard
Airport health screeners in hazmat suits and armed with gun

thermometers are becoming a familiar sight in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra
Leone, where the Ebola epidemic continues to spiral out of control.
Passengers boarding aircraft are checked for fever. If cleared, they
receive a stamped leaflet declaring them fit for travel.

Kenyan health officials take the temperatures of passengers arriving at Nairobi's airport.The
precautions are similar to steps taken during previous outbreaks of
contagious diseases, including Middle East respiratory syndrome and
deadly bird flus.

For now, the threat to air travelers outside
West Africa appears to be low. The World Health Organization is
recommending that in non-affected countries, authorities should
strengthen the capacity to detect and immediately contain new cases,
while avoiding measures that will create unnecessary interference with
international travel or trade.

In addition, medical experts
note that even if a passenger infected with Ebola were to board a
plight, other passengers are not in imminent danger. The risks of
contracting the virus from an infected passenger are “extremely low,”
according to Lee Norman, the chief medical officer at the University of
Kansas Hospital and an adviser to homeland security on infectious
diseases.

“If a traveler were to come in contact with a
symptomatic Ebola patient who was bleeding, having diarrhea or vomiting,
and the traveler came in contact with those bodily fluids, then it
would be possible,” he says. “But one would hope that a patient that ill
would not be allowed on the airplane in the first place.”

Nonetheless,
the Ebola outbreak is raising questions that apply to any passenger who
is not well. What are your rights to a refund or new ticket if you
cancel a trip because you have an infectious illness? And what right
does an airline have to deny you boarding?

A passenger who is
ill might prefer to cancel and receive a full refund for the ticket.
That’s possible if you’ve purchased a top-dollar, refundable ticket. But
most passengers opt for the cheaper, non-refundable fare. If you’re too
sick to fly, you can rebook a different flight but there will be a
change fee of $200 to $300. And you’ll have to pay the difference if the
new fare is higher than the old one.

But there is an exception:
If a passenger shows up at the airport and is denied boarding because
of a visible illness, then the airline would offer a full refund.

The
reasons behind the airlines’ reluctance to offer full refunds appear to
be mostly financial. Simply put, airlines don’t want to refund tickets
on a wide scale.

Every exception costs an airline potential
revenue. Last year, domestic airlines collected $2.8 billion in ticket
change fees, up from $2.5 billion the previous year. (Although it’s not
clear what percentage of that is from customers who had to cancel their
flights because of an illness.)

If you do show up and inform
the airline you are too sick to fly, a gate agent will make the decision
whether to refund your money. Refunds are approved on a “case by case
basis,” says Steve Loucks, a spokesman for Travel Leaders Group, a
network of travel agents.

“The availability to cancel a ticket
depends on the situation, the airline and the type of ticket purchased,”
says Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for the Airlines for America (A4A), a
trade association for domestic airlines.

The same goes for
tickets to international destinations. That information is typically
contained in a document called the contract of carriage or conditions of
carriage, according to Perry Flint, a spokesman for the International
Air Transport Association (IATA). “Each airline makes its own decisions
with regard to the refundability of a fare, subject to any government
regulations as applicable,” he adds.

In the wake of the Ebola
outbreak, A4A is recommending that passengers who believe they have been
exposed to the virus and possibly are infected not go to the airport
but go to a medical professional for treatment. A doctor’s note can
sometimes persuade an airline to offer a refund, even on a
non-refundable ticket.

And what if you think you’re well enough
to fly, but the airline disagrees? Under federal regulations, airlines
may deny boarding a passenger who is a “direct threat”
to the health of other passengers.”To be a direct threat, a condition
must be both able to be readily transmitted by casual contact in the
course of a flight and have severe health consequences,”
according to the federal regulation. It lists SARS and active
tuberculosis as examples of direct threats.

Airlines have their own policies as well that give them the right to prevent a passenger from boarding. For example, international contract” target=”_blank”>American Airlines’ international contract
says it has “the right to refuse carriage to any passenger who has not
complied with applicable laws, regulations, orders, demands, or
requirements or whose documents are not complete.”

Although
this rule is thought to apply mostly to passengers with invalid visas or
passports, it could also be used to send a sick passenger packing.
Passengers with paperwork problems are offered a flight credit, in
accordance with the rules of their fare.

Meanwhile, as the
Ebola epidemic continues, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
wants to make sure airlines know how to handle a potential patient. A
document called “Ebola Guidance for Airlines,”
updated on August 11, suggests providing a surgical mask and air
sickness bag for a traveler who is coughing, sneezing or vomiting. The
crew is advised to “wear impermeable disposable gloves for direct
contact with blood or other body fluids.”

And indeed, there
have been cases of passengers flying who were later diagnosed with
Ebola. Liberian-American Patrick Sawyer hopped a plane in Liberia,
arrived in Nigeria, then collapsed and died of Ebola. It does not appear
that he infected anyone on the plane but two health care workers who
treated him in Nigeria were subsequently diagnosed with Ebola.

The
Sawyer story is a reminder that even if ticket refunds are an important
issue for passengers, preventing the spread of Ebola by airline
passengers is a far greater concern.

: NPR

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