What if you don’t want to fly?

By | September 11th, 2001

If you’re having second thoughts about air travel in the aftermath of the tragic events in New York and Washington, rest assured. No one is going to force you to fly. And a refund may be available.

Even though your airline ticket may come with every restriction known to you – and perhaps some of you aren’t even aware of – your carrier is likely to be more than accommodating if you’d prefer not to fly.

The key is to understand the difference between an airline’s rules and its unwritten policies. Your airline’s rules may state that you aren’t entitled to any changes or refunds when you travel on a restricted ticket (say, a 14-day advance-purchase fare). It may not entitle you to any additional compensation in events that are beyond its control, such as what it terms “hostilities.”

Actually, this is something of a gray area as far as the rules go that even airline experts have a difficult time understanding. If an airline fails to operate a flight as promised, its contract of carriage generally mandates that it will transport you on another of the carrier’s flights on which space is available at no additional charge or refund the unused portion of the passenger’s fare. However, airline rules also stipulate that the carrier isn’t liable “for any failure or delay in operating any flight due to causes beyond carrier’s control,” which include “acts of God, governmental actions, fire, weather and mechanical difficulties.”

But by sticking to the rules – or their interpretation of the rules – the airlines are exacerbating a public-relations disaster. They’re highly unlikely to throw the book in your face if you don’t want to travel.

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Here’s where the carrier’s unwritten policy is more likely to come into effect. Its policy generally gives ticket and gate agents extraordinary authority to offer either a voucher for future travel or an outright refund. In fact, in the aftermath of an extraordinary series of events like the vaporization of both World Trade Towers and the Pentagon air attack, you should expect your airline to throw the book out altogether.

Here’s an example of rules versus policy. Several years ago I was booked on an American Airlines flight from Miami to Albuquerque via Dallas/Fort Worth. Hurricane Opal, one of the most powerful storms of the season, was bearing in on Miami. I went to the airport, but before the flight departed, I had second thoughts about leaving my loved ones behind. I told the ticket agent that I wanted to stay in Florida and brave the storm.

The agent said she completely understood. Without hesitating, she issued a refund to my credit card.

Will you find your airline to be as cooperative? I can’t guarantee it, but there’s a very good chance that it will waive some – if not all – of its rules. Before you call your airline, however, here are a few things to remember:

* Flying is still relatively safe, statistically speaking. A recent University of Michigan study found that air travel is 33 times safer than driving. It’s unclear how that number will change in light of the latest string of hijackings.

* Aerophobia is nothing to be ashamed of. According to a Boeing survey, one-third of all travelers suffer from the fear of flying, and 25 million Americans refuse to fly. If you’d prefer to stay put until the dust settles, that’s OK.

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* Be patient. If you’re flying this week, assume that there will be further disruption in the air travel network. Expect long delays and more cancellations. If you’re trying to reach your airline by phone or online, don’t count on it. As I write this, only one carrier – American Airlines – has updated its Web site to reflect today’s events.

What if your carrier doesn’t want to issue a refund or a voucher? In the unlikely event that a phone agent refuses to rebook you on a future flight or issue a refund, don’t despair. Take your case to a ticket agent in person and explain that you’re not comfortable traveling by air. If the ticket agent is unreceptive, then ask to speak with a manager.

If the agent offers a voucher rather than a refund, and if it appears that’s your airline’s best offer, then take it. Remember that by buying restricted, advance-purchase tickets, you’ve given up your rights to a change or refund – so in the end, you’re better off taking whatever the airline is giving.

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