Airlines Must Stop Pressuring Passengers To Fly While Sick

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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Penalties for coming to work or using shared transport when sick need to be implemented.

    Instead of “cancelling” people for posting true but inconvenient facts about nonwhite groups, why not cancel people who cough their germs all over corporate meeting rooms?

  2. Gary, this is an excellent point – one should not fly when sick. The same should extend to hotel stays. This should be a simple public health issue – the ability to cancel flights and hotels when a person gets sick. And converting unused airfare/room rate to a future travel voucher or miles/points would be an acceptable solution.

  3. I agree, but this also stretches to people should not have to work when sick. I am concerned not only for people flying, but those WORKING at the airport/on planes/anywhere…

  4. It’s clear the pricing model of charging people penalties when their plans change is broken in an era where people need to be free to change their plans should they catch an infection.

    To feel good about booking tix, people need to be able to know that they can hit a button, maybe have their temperature taken via an app, and then get a refund. Of course this will be gamed. People game everything.

    Airlines have been bending over and f-ing everyone for years with their model. Cost me $2,300 in penalties and fare differences to move my wife, son and me one day forward for a return flight because I was sick. and now it’s finally come to a head. I have no sympathy. None at all.

  5. Cancellation penalties are one reason behind IATA predicting global travel will not recover for years. Few folks want to risk thousands on trips that might have to be cancelled on short notice due to COVID-19 issues.

  6. I hope this is a small silver lining in the pandemic. It’s become socially unacceptable to be in public while visibly spreading germs (coughing, sneezing, etc). So I hope the airlines will be shamed into permanently allowing flight changes with no fee or nominal fee (note: $125 is not nominal).

  7. @Jason ever hear of “less is more?” Don’t sully your good points with a racist screed, huh?

  8. Not sure why anyone would book speculative trips domestic or International with anything other than refundable Award tickets on any airline other than SW unless the miles were use or lose.

    When we have seen Airlines refusing to refund tickets or force vouchers down your throat, and if they run into another money crunch. Or retroactively change conditions of carriage to fly after payment of the ticket, or sell flights they know they will likely cancel or condense to a single flight.

    Without requiring a negative COVID test – people are going to pop a Tylenol or two and don a mask and sadly just fly. If 10 out of 16 travelers flying from Singapore back to Wuhan were asymptomatic that’s approximately 38%.

  9. All good points, and it’s the same issue with sports and concerts, which is where loads of people catch infectious diseases.

    It has to be fixed, but only regulations (not market forces) can do it. It’s a classic case of free market economic externalities — the business gains (in this case by being able to make more money on business travelers) by making others (in this case society) poorer. But that’s exactly why we have a government!

  10. This is a BS article! Nobody is forced to go to the airport to prove they are sick. On safety concuous airlines like Delta, you can easily call or message ahead and change or refund your trip. This measure is simply in place to turn away those who show up ill.

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