When U.S. airlines asked the government to institute mandatory temperature checks for passengers at airports, they dangled the carrot that if a passenger had a fever and was denied the ability to travel, they would be willing to refund that customer’s ticket.
This is insane. It requires a sick passenger to go to the airport, possibly infecting people, in order to get a refund. But that’s a long-standing problem of airline pricing that effectively encourages people to travel when sick that’s simply highlighted by the current pandemic.
Back in May I wrote about social norms that encouraged people to fly when sick.
- The CDC actually recommended foregoing travel if you had a fever over 100 degrees and other symptoms, but a fever alone wasn’t reason to cancel a trip in their medical opinion. It wasn’t even advice from government health officials always not to fly when sick.
- Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak about half of people said they’d fly even if they had the flu. Socially many people felt compelled to travel when sick, perhaps they’d lose out on an important meeting. I always hated this – and got very angry at people who came to work at my office sick – because they risked spreading whatever they had. Financially airlines have made it hard for people to reschedule.
- Airlines refusing to refund tickets when you’re sick is part and parcel of their business model. While Southwest Airlines doesn’t impose change fees on tickets (though if your new flight is more expensive you’ll pay the difference), non-refundable tickets and change fees are a key part of how legacy carriers price discriminate between business travelers and leisure travelers.
Seth Kaplan recognizes the problem in this week’s Airlines Confidential podcast, but doesn’t suggest a solution. It’s a problem that needs solving even after the pandemic, now that we’re all much more sensitive to traveling with sick passengers – this isn’t about the comfort of the person traveling, but the safety of everyone else on board. Airlines need to figure out how to incentivize sick people not to fly in order to maintain their brand investments in safety and cleanliness that they’re making now.
In addition to Southwest’s ‘no change fee’ model, airlines have offered to convert ticket value into frequent flyer miles.
Southwest announced a policy where through September 7 they’ll allow you to convert travel funds into points at their normal points value. Air Canada will let you do it at 1.3 cents per mile. Qatar Airways will let you convert travel credit to points at just a penny apiece (though Qatar miles are worth less than many airline currencies in my view).
That’s one way for customers to get something, rather than nothing, for their ticket value – and should apply even to ‘non-changeable’ basic economy fares. It also protects the airline from turning non-refundable tickets into effectively refundable ones. And it means that business travelers can’t just buy tickets at low prices and swap them later with impunity (though companies will need to monitor or control their transfers to miles, just as they have to control cancelled tickets being converted to personal use today).
It’s not a panacea, but it’s a start that I mention because it’s a model several airlines are already getting comfortable with if only for this Covid-19 era. How can airlines effectively maintain their pricing model, while giving sick passengers flexibility – without letting passengers use that flexibility to game the system, claiming to be sick when they’re not?
Perhaps the reduced transaction costs of seeing a doctor, with the temporary relaxation of rules for telemedicine, suggests a path forward where passengers reasonably could get doctor signoff to gain airline flexibility, though this too leaves open the possibility of gaming the airlines and airlines would have to manage the paper flow of doctors notes.
That’s why the airline miles conversion seems like at least a good start, to make it a little bit less taxing for passengers to make the right choice to cancel a trip whenever they are sick (and possibly contagious) without being penalized too harshly for doing so.