Why The Airlines Won't Let You Call In Sick

Off the record

Last week, news headlines thundered about an Air Canada passenger who informed the airline she had H1N1 and expected sympathetic assistance in rebooking her trip. Air Canada merely offered to change her travel date for a large fee. The passenger – who believed she was doing the right thing by letting the airline know – was shocked at the treatment.

Most airlines such as Air Canada and WestJet are actually under no obligation to re-accommodate passengers on another flight whether they suffer from H1N1 or a stomach bug. Nor will they offer a full refund if the conditions of their ticket do not allow any cancellations.

For the airlines and tour operators, it all comes down to basic economics, and the effect supply and demand has on selling prices. Imagine a passenger booking a flight for $99 in a seat sale in January, and then calling to change the flight to a March Break departure when everyone else on that flight will have paid at least $699.

With tour operators, where there is a hotel booked as well as an air seat, changing the original ticket can have financial implications for the tour operator. As such, they tend to charge higher change fees and cancellation penalties because the hotels they deal with dock them for holding the room. For instance, if you cancel a booking in early December for a Christmas holiday, chances are you will not get any money back because the hotel will charge the tour operator a full penalty.

A little research before making any changes is extremely advisable. There will almost always be a difference in selling prices, so be prepared to pay more. As far  as a refund is concerned — they may deduct a change fee, but is not unreasonable to ask.

The key terms to look for are: full cancellations allowed up to departure, or no (low) change fees, whatever the circumstances. With respect to H1N1, if the provider’s policy does not state specifically that cancellations or changes are allowed if the passenger has H1N1, then they are probably not.

For any packages booked with a tour operator, there are only a few companies currently offering H1N1 protection. Sunwing offers a “Worry Free” cancellation plan for $49 per person, allowing cancellations up to 3 hours prior to the flight departure for any reason. Signature offers a very similar “Care-Free Cancellation Waiver” plan for $50 or $60 per person, allowing cancellations to 24 hours prior to the flight departure. WestJet Vacations allow cancellations outside of 21 days for a $75 fee. While passengers may not get cash refunds, receiving the full booking value in future travel credit is certainly reasonable.

Passengers should also look toward travel insurance as a means of protection. RBC Insurance, the largest provider of travel insurance in the Canadian market, confirmed to Take Off eh! that their Trip Cancellation Insurance does cite H1N1, or similar flu-like illness, as an “emergency medical condition and the policy holder would be eligible for the reimbursement of the non-refundable portion of their prepaid travel arrangements, subject to the terms and conditions of the policy”. This requires confirmation from a physician, as with any other medical condition. The coverage applies as long as the passenger does not have the H1N1 virus as a pre-condition, or made a booking for travel to a destination for which the government has issued a formal H1N1 warning after the warning was issued.

In short, whether people have the flu or any other infectious condition, in many instances, the claim can be difficult to prove. It’s a very murky area for airlines and tour operators to navigate and set fair policies for. But bear in mind that an air carrier also reserves the right to deny boarding to someone who is visibly not well enough to fly.

From the airline and tour operators’ perspective, is it fair to single out any type of flu over say, asthma or strep throat? And why should travel have to follow different rules than any other service providers such as theatres or sports vernues? Travellers have to protect themselves with the tools available to them, or simply not travel.

By: Sarah Dawson

Photo Credit: macky_ch