Topic of the Week: Should Airlines Waive Fees for Travel to Russia

Marina Spor and her family hold tickets to Scandinavia and Russia this summer on Finnair, and the crisis in Ukraine has caused them to want to change their plans. Finnair says that’s fine, but they’ll have to pay the fee and the fare difference like everyone else. This family got angry and took it to the media, trying to get sympathy. Finnair buckled, but should they have?

Gary Leff at View From the Wing brought this up earlier this week and he seems conflicted. Personally, I don’t think they should have waived anything. What do you think?


22 Responses to Topic of the Week: Should Airlines Waive Fees for Travel to Russia

  1. MathFox says:

    Waiving fees is the discretion of the airline. Large scale waivers are commonly seen in hurricane areas; I would happily extend that to any area where passenger safety and the flight schedule are under eminent threat.

    However there can be other, personal reasons to waive fees. (Illness for example.) If Finnair thinks that the change in Russia-EU relations is grounds for a fee waiver, it’s their call to make. I don’t think they have a general obligation.
    (I would defend a waiver for activists that have spoken themselves out against Putin and Crimea separating from Ukraine in the light of recent changes in Russia restricting press freedom.)

  2. Jim M says:

    No — although I understand the family’s frustration when all they wanted to do was dump a flight leg.

  3. TimH says:

    This is more or less right on the line between ‘shouldn’t offer’ and ‘should’ in my book. It’s entirely conceivable (conceivable, not really LIKELY, but not out of the question) at this point that by this summer, the situation with Russia could deteriorate to the point where Finnair might be offering refunds to everyone; at the same time, as far as I know no governments have issued travel or safety advisories for travel to Russia BECAUSE OF what happened in Ukraine.

    At the same time, with tightening sanctions, and the declining ruble and Russian stock market, I’m betting a lot of business travel to Russia is drying up, and a fair amount of the leisure travel as well – if I’m an airline flying to Russia, I’ve got to think those flights won’t make projections (unless a lot of foreigners in Russia try getting out – but then you’d have empty planes in, full planes out).

  4. speaketh says:

    I think the family’s request would be more legitimate if they were flying within the next week. Most other waiver situations are determined just before the dates they cover. The airline shouldn’t have to predict now whether Ukraine will be safe to visit this summer. If the family wants to change now, they should pay the fee, if they want to wait until just before they travel and (still) have a credible reason, they should not pay fee.

  5. David SF eastbay says:

    They did what to many people know to do now a days and that is go viral to turn the public to their side and then a company must ‘look good’ and give in to the persons demands.

    It’s one thing if the country was in ruins and airports closed or the United Nations was warning people away, but they just changed their minds which is fine, but they should pay the fees just like anyone else that changes their mind or can’t make a trip for some reason.

  6. Southeasterner says:

    I would love to know how much bad publicity really costs an airline (and I’m sure many consultants know the answer). How many people looking up flights on Kayak or Tripadvisor are going to skip over the lowest fare or a direct flight because of someone else’s bad experience? Or how many people will skip the lowest far or a direct flight to take Finair because they are aware of someone else’s good experience?

    It seems like you would have to do a bit of benefit-cost analysis to really understand the impact. Were these customers frequent fliers with Finair? Maybe there were other reasons for waving the fee?

    • David SF eastbay says:

      Interesting point. Bad PR never hurts the celebs you see on the cover of People magazine, it only gets them on more talk shows and better movie deals. So how bad can not waiving a fee be?

      • TC99 says:

        There is a saying I hear all the time, “Any PR is good PR because it puts your name out there.”

  7. Ron says:

    Let me try a more nuanced view. What triggered this whole mess was the exorbitant change fee. Now the change fee itself for a family of 4 is likely no more than $1200, or less than 50% of the total amount requested by the airline; the remainder would be the difference in fare, and this far out it is not likely for the fare itself to have risen that much. So in all likelihood, the bulk of the price change comes from the fact that the family bought 4 tickets at a price intended for connecting flights, and now they want to use the tickets for a higher-priced originating flight (on the same aircraft). I know airlines are trying to clamp down on hidden city ticketing, but this is clearly a case where an external geopolitical event caused a genuine (though voluntary) change in plans, and there was no ill intention. So I’d say charge the change fee, but waive the difference in fare.

  8. Ron says:

    Off-topic: Driving north through the Sepulveda tunnel this morning, I saw a flashing sign saying that Air France, KLM and Saudia are now at “Term B”. I know the intention is Bradley, but is this a normal way to refer to the terminal? Must be confusing to a lot of people who are not that familiar with LAX.

  9. drybean says:

    Somewhere in the ticket purchase agreement its says the airline is not responsible for acts of God or war, etc… This is war so they do not have to waive fees…unless they value or want to cultivate passenger loyalty.

  10. Big Sally says:

    Absolutely not. Hysteria based on ignorance of the situation on the ground should not be an airline’s problem. The problems are restricted to pockets of Ukraine and the area of Russia near the Ukraine.

  11. Jack says:

    I am with them. Finnair is really pushing the pencil with that huge amount. Change fees and then “walk up fares” to boot is way too much!! The problem in Ukraine is REAL and I wouldn’t want my kids stuck.
    Hopefully Putin will stop at the Crimea—but who knows.

  12. JayB says:

    This is for travel this summer? Whatever.

    Sure, you bought it, so you;ll have to live with it. But, why can’t these darn airline tickets be resold?

    I am convinced there will come a day when airline tickets can be resold by the owner. Time limits, security compliance, of course. But, this isn’t rocket science. If an entrepreneur can make money, there is a way to make this work. A Kayak, or somebody. I doubt that every Tom, Dick, and Harry travel agent, or even every airline would want to handle the resale process itself. My guess is that airlines see this possiblity as the destruction of their fare structures and revenue management systems. Oh, I weep! But, really!

  13. MeanMeosh says:

    The question I would ask is this. The facts as stated in Gary Leff’s story indicated that the family was traveling to Russia, not Ukraine. While there is a State Department “Advisory” for the potential for future problems, there is not a “Warning” for imminent threats against U.S. citizens. Are there concerns about harassment of persons of Ukranian descent within Russia? Or is this a case of the family wanting to boycott Russia to protest the invasion of Crimea?

    If there are issues with Ukranians being harassed/intimidated/discriminated against in Russia because of the current situation, then I can understand wanting to change plans, and think Finnair should allow the changes without charging fees. This is a situation trip insurance is unlikely to cover, but I certainly wouldn’t want to go somewhere where I’m not welcome. On the other hand, if this is a case of the family saying “we don’t like Russia because of Crimea so we want to go somewhere else”, then to me, that’s a personal choice that shouldn’t be subsidized by the airline, and ultimately, other air travelers.

    On a side note, unfortunately, the comments to Gary’s post pretty much fell out the way I expected. The “compassion” crowd is out in full force, branding their pitchforks against all of those cold and heartless souls who disagree with the “correct” definition of compassion and side with the airline (see the comments by “peachfront” and “Ed”). I think it’s rather sad, but I’m not surprised.

  14. RobertZ says:

    Sure, there are a few corporate-driven decisions that would justify not providing financial compensation for these folks. But in the best of worlds, which I would like to think we all strive for, they did the right thing.

    When will our capitalistic-nationalistic mind set allow for some human compassion? And don’t gimme this bottom-line investors/stockholders are god blah blah blah.

  15. Forget Russia for a moment. Maybe its just me, but isn’t there something quite a bit unfair about airlines charging you NOT to fly? I’ve had this before where a friend purchased a round trip ticket, but wished to depart earlier. The change fee alone was greater than the cost of re-purchasing the outbound leg of the flight on another carrier, but being a no-show on the outbound leg would have cancelled the return.

    Perhaps someone can explain this to me: Why can’t passengers inform airlines in advance that they will not be flying one leg of an itinerary without receiving a partial refund, and without having the whole thing cancelled?

  16. What makes my eyes pop is the $2,818.24 change fee. I’d like to see how thats broken down, I’m sure its partially a change fee and partially a change in fare.

    I think Finnair was stupid to completely cave on the $2,818.24. They should’ve met the traveler halfway with a change fee, but no change in fare. This also would’ve kept it quiet…

    Or the other thing would’ve been to charge the change in fare but place an equal amount of flight credits in the traveler’s account. Sort of a hook…

    Do airlines have a “supervisor” level review where these issues can be inspected on a one by one basis without going to the media?

  17. Sean S. says:

    While I think I understood that the family at some point wanted to actually visit Russia, why would anyone transit THROUGH Russia? Russia has some of the most onerous restrictions on American passport holders, making it silly if not downright stupid to try and transit through Russia.

  18. No Fly Zone says:

    No. Even before the current troubles in Ukraine, the Russians and *some* of their former associates continue to abuse Western visitors. There is rarely a good reason to visit and the best way to deal with those thugs is to freeze them out of the hard currency market. Finnair should have stood their policy ground. Even smarter, the family could have bought tickets on a U.S. carrier, but chose the cheap route. They are far more fortunate then they should be. Have they visited Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon? No empathy from here.

  19. Diana Melnichenko says:

    Our family of four is faced with more than $2,000 in change/fare different fees as we try to avoid our leg trip to Ukraine on British Airways. Essentially, we are trying not to board a flight to Kiev on May 23 with a return flight on May 29, given that election in Ukraine is scheduled for May 25 and the situation, unstable now, will only get worse. So we are trying to keep four our of six original flights on our itinerary.

    The response we got from British Airways customer service is:

    “Dear Mrs Melnichenko

    Thank you for coming back to us. We have received your email dated 16 April 2014. I am sorry to learn that you are unhappy with the change fee quoted to you our Reservations team to amend your booking with us. Please accept our sincere apologies.

    I would like to inform you that change fee have to take very many factors into account, however. Of course, the distance and type of aircraft are part of the equation, as well as our operating costs and customer demand for the destination in question on that day. There is also the fact that landing and navigation fees, and airport charges, can vary widely between different countries, and even between different cities in the same country.

    The change fee amount also depends upon the fare rule of your ticket. It became increasingly difficult for us to absorb the extra administration costs and other overheads when people book and then amend, and we now have no choice but to pass some of this on.

    Thank you again for getting in touch with us. I hope that I have managed to explain you the background.

    Best regards
    Mihir Banerji
    British Airways Customer Relations”

    All the facts listed are unfounded given that they will not incur higher landing or airport fees as our family boards 4 out of 6 flights… How ridiculous! This practice is predatory and unfair forcing the customers concerned for the safety of their family, especially given the outstanding Travel Warning, to purchase the same seats they already have.

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