Could shortsighted airline refund policies lead to an outbreak?

Shutterstock

The deadly Ebola virus has arrived in the United States just in time for the holiday travel season, carrying fear and uncertainty with it. A survey late last month by Unicomm, an organizer of trade shows and conferences, found that 41 percent of active travelers said the outbreak had raised their anxiety levels.

Travel companies say they’re taking every precaution they can to keep their passengers safe.

After Carnival Cruise Lines learned that a passenger on its ship Magic might have handled specimens taken from the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the United States, the ship skipped a port of call in Mexico and headed back to Galveston, Tex. The health-care worker, who showed no Ebola symptoms, voluntarily isolated herself onboard at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s request.

Frontier Airlines, which had an Ebola scare after nurse Amber Vinson flew from Cleveland to Dallas right before testing positive for the virus, exceeded the steps recommended by the CDC. The company reportedly said it put the six-person flight crew on a 21-day paid leave and cleaned the aircraft four times, including removing the seat covers and carpets in the immediate vicinity of Vinson’s seat.

But that doesn’t completely reassure frequent traveler Eunice Park Choi, an attorney from San Francisco: She worries that Frontier’s rigid cancellation policies might have played a role in Vinson’s decision to take the flight even though she wasn’t feeling well. “I would like the airlines and cruise lines to step up and say: ‘If you think you have Ebola, don’t use your ticket and we will honor it later with no fees,’ ” she says.

Indeed, Frontier and Carnival’s published rules are clear and haven’t changed, even for people who fear they might have picked up an infectious disease: Passengers who think they might be sick and decide to stay home without notifying the carrier lose the entire value of their trip. That’s an industry standard. If they notify the company before departure, they might receive a ticket credit or a partial refund, depending on their travel date.

If a passenger is actually diagnosed with Ebola, Frontier would do the “right thing” and refund his or her ticket, so “as not to create an additional burden on the family during a difficult time,” says Todd Lehmacher, an airline spokesman.

That policy doesn’t necessarily extend to other contagious diseases, he adds. “The diagnosis of other infectious diseases would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis dependent on the specific situation and the doctor’s advice for travel,” he says.

Carnival said it would waive its refund rules under certain Ebola-related conditions. “If someone is denied boarding because they have traveled to one of the countries of concern in West Africa within the past 21 days or have had contact with someone with Ebola in the past 21 days, they will be provided a full refund plus reimbursement of travel expenses,” says Carnival spokeswoman Aly Bello.

For the most part, the travel industry appears to be in “wait and see” mode, at least for now. American Airlines, the largest carrier in the United States, hasn’t changed its policy for infected passengers. If the customer, immediate family member or traveling companion can’t travel because of an illness, the ticketed flights for travel must be canceled before departure to have the value of the ticket applied to future travel. “All penalties, rules/restrictions apply for new travel,” its policy says.

American isn’t changing the way it cleans aircraft, either, according to company spokesman Joshua Freed. There is no need to. “Our aircraft cleaning already follows CDC guidelines, including those specific to Ebola and other communicable diseases,” he says.

Travel companies are taking “adequate precautions,” says Robert Wheeler, the chief medical officer for On Call International, a Salem, N.H., company that offers medical evacuation protection services to travelers. But he cautions that as the situation changes, companies may need to adapt.

Choi’s question exposes an ongoing conflict that may come to a head if Ebola spreads. Whether you’re staying at a hotel, cruising, flying or taking a train, you have few options when you wake up the morning of your trip with symptoms of an infectious disease. Chances are, you’ll lose some or all of the cost of your vacation or business trip.

Travel companies imposed these restrictions for two reasons: first, they protect their profits; and second, they ensure all customers are treated evenhandedly, a policy otherwise referred to as “no waivers, no favors.” Many customers know about these strict no-refund rules, and that has them concerned. They fear someone with Ebola symptoms would fly or cruise rather than lose the value of their ticket.

But what about passengers who aren’t sick but are just worried that they could get the virus from another passenger, crew member or infected site? They are left in a difficult spot.

Len Peg, a retired teacher from Calgary, has already paid for his Caribbean cruise in February. To get a full refund, he’ll have to cancel by next month. Otherwise, he’ll slowly lose his vacation over time, first with his deposit, then a quarter of the value, then half, and finally everything.

“I plan to watch the news to see how contained the outbreak is,” he says. “If it looks like the numbers are climbing, we’ll cancel the cruise. If it looks like the numbers have stabilized, we’ll go.” Peg’s reaction is typical: In the Unicomm survey, 7 in 10 travelers said they wouldn’t change their itineraries in the near term.

Others aren’t taking any chances. The Institute for Shipboard Education, which runs the study-abroad program Semester at Sea, decided to skip several ports of call in Senegal and Ghana during 2015, thanks to the Ebola outbreak. “We’ve decided to reroute and replace those port visits with alternative ports,” says spokeswoman Lauren Judge.

Blake Fleetwood, a manager at CookTravel.net, a travel agency in New York, just saw the cancellation of a $197,000 booking — a family of 30 planning an upscale safari to South Africa. There have been no reported Ebola cases in that country. Yet they are adamant.

“The client doesn’t even want his $60,000 deposit back,” he says.

I admit, I’ve postponed a planned trip to Dallas with my family this month. But many other travelers, particularly those with business, say they’re not changing their plans. Joyce Gioia, an author and motivational speaker based in Austin, has six trips on her calendar for the rest of the year.

“I’m playing the odds, and the odds of exposure at this point in time are very low,” she says.

That may be true. But unless Ebola is contained quickly, it seems the travel industry’s cancellation rules, which themselves are slow to change, could collide with an infected customer’s aversion to losing a ticket credit. This may be the right time for the government to take a more active role to ensure Ebola isn’t spread by travel via air, land or sea because of shortsighted corporate policies.

Should airlines change their refund policies to prevent an outbreak?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...
Share this story
Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share on Facebook

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Enterprise Holdings

A family-owned, world-class portfolio of brands. A global network that spans across more than 85 countries. Some 97,000 dedicated team members sharing common values. And more than 1.9 million vehicles taking our customers wherever they need to go.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by InsureMyTrip

It’s simple. InsureMyTrip finds you the right travel insurance plan, every time. InsureMyTrip is the authority on travel insurance. Rated A+ for travel insurance by the Better Business Bureau. All travelers that purchase a policy through  InsureMyTrip have access to Anytime Advocates® for claims assistance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by SCOTTeVEST

An innovative apparel brand for people who want easy access to everything they need. For those who live for every second, SCOTTeVEST lets you maximize your life. Ditch the carry-on bag and pick up a  SCOTTeVEST.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.