Airlines Should Not Bend the Rules for Those With Family Emergencies

Customer Service

One of the more contentious customer service issues in the airline industry has long been around how airlines deal with people who have family emergencies. This comes in a lot of different forms. Some people may need to buy a ticket at the last minute to get to an ailing family member 06_10_31 Sador to a funeral. Other times, a trip might be interrupted due to an emergency back home, requiring a change of plans.

Either way, this kind of thing usually means shelling out a fair bit of money to buy a new ticket or change an existing one. While some airlines will give you a bit of a break in these situations, most won’t. That rubs some people the wrong way, but I’ll argue that the airlines shouldn’t be giving people a break here except in rare instances.

The Elusive and Annoying Bereavement Fare
Traditional legacy carriers tend to have bereavement fares, but they are far less common than you might think. For United, it’s a 5 percent discount off the published fare. For others, it’s a filed fare that’s a discount off full coach. That, however, may often be more expensive than other discounted fares in the market. For the most part, these fares aren’t worth it because of the hassle involved. As Seinfeld fans know, you need proof of the emergency.

This might mean bringing a copy of the death certificate or a doctors note. In other cases, you can provide the details of the funeral home or hospital and the airline can follow up directly. This might sound callous, but let’s be honest. People will try to take advantage of this kind of discount if proof isn’t required.

But the bereavement fare is sort of a vestige of the past. It used to be that last minute travel was very expensive while planes were empty. So airlines knew that they could discount fares for bereavement travel and fill up a seat with someone who isn’t going to pay the full fare.

Less Need for Special Fares
Travel today is different. In markets with low cost competition, the spread between the last minute fare and the advance purchase fare is less than it used to be. And airplanes are a lot more full. So the result is that most low cost airlines don’t bother with bereavement fares at all. Customer service stars like Southwest, for example, do not do anything out of the ordinary.

Should airlines have these kinds of fares? I’d say no. While personal tragedies are awful, they happen all the time. At last check, about 7,000 people die in the US alone each day. Many, many more get sick. And there are multiple people wanting to travel for each tragedy. So while it seems like an incredibly rare situation when it happens to you, in reality it happens all the time. This isn’t a one-off type of exception for an airline to make. It’s a big piece of business.

Many Disagree
Of course, many people disagree with this and think that if they have a family emergency, then the airlines should go out of its way to help them get there. I just have a hard time seeing a reason for that with one exception. I would like to see airlines oversell a full flight to get someone onboard at the prevailing rate. If a flight is full and there are no other options, it could mean the difference between someone seeing a relative before they die and not. But that’s more of a corner case and it would still carry a hefty price tag.

Some think that this is crazy and that airlines should just throw the rules out the window when it comes to helping people in trouble. Here’s a recent case that we can use to discuss the point.

An Example to Review
Someone named “The Answer Guy” was in LA for a memorial service when he found out his fiancee’s father was gravely ill. They both needed to change their Virgin America tickets to get back to New York sooner.

The blog post really tries to make it sound like Virgin America is a terrible airline, but I think the airline did more than it needed to. There was a $100 change fee and a $434 fare difference to make a change at the last minute for a redeye home. The Answer Guy was livid and thought Virgin America should have let him travel on an earlier day for free.

Virgin America offered to waive the change fee but not the fare difference. And why should they? That gesture alone of waiving the change fee was above and beyond what the airline needed to do. And from the tone of the email, it sounds like he’s flown Virgin America occasionally, but he’s not a super duper fancy customer who Virgin America would want to work extra hard to keep happy.

But he wasn’t happy and has gone ranting and raving, even trying to threaten the airline with his standing as the author of “a customer service web site that is regularly read by several tens of thousands of small business owners; I expect that’s not an audience you want aware of and discussing what follows, nor the manner in which VAA has thus far handled things.”

Yeah, that’s a good way to handle the situation. Trying to pretend you’re important is never going to garner sympathy (regardless of whether you’re actually important or not).

He brings up the Peninsula in Beverly Hills as a counter example. They let him check out a day early without penalty. But that’s usually the policy at most hotels. Few will penalize you if you need to check out early. Though I don’t know the details of his rate, that’s most likely in the rules and that’s not any kind of exception.

The reality is that on that Virgin America flight, there were probably few seats left at such a last minute. There’s a going rate for those seats, and if the author doesn’t want to pay it, then somebody else very likely will. At least, that’s the general assumption if the revenue management system is doing its job.

So now I’ll turn it over to you. Should airlines make special exceptions for the many bereaved travelers or not? I say no, but I’d like to hear your thoughts along with an explanation either way.

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96 comments on “Airlines Should Not Bend the Rules for Those With Family Emergencies

  1. It’s very easy to give an argument when life is going ok, but when a relative is dying emotions tend to come to the fore – at which point people tend to take a slightly different viewpoint.

    Setting policy in a comfortable office is one thing, but if you’re on a ticket desk at an airport telling someone whose parent is dying that they need to pay an extra $800 or they don’t get the seat while looking them in the eye, then it’s a very difficult job to do.

    1. I agree, corporate policy is easy to set when it’s not personal, but when you actually see the people that it’s affecting it’s hard not to have compassion.

      Personally I’ve never been in that situation so I’m not sure how I would feel. If I was asked to pay a huge fare difference for a flight that had empty seats or non-rev passengers I can imagine I’d be pretty mad.

      Now if the flight was full and I bumped someone it seems only fair that there would be a significant expense for doing that. I’ve bumped people when flying on full fare corporate tickets and didn’t bat an eye as the ticket was $1500 for something like MSP-SLC. When demand exceeds supply the old adage remains true – pay up or shut up.

      1. I have flown in this situation, and I can tell you, cost isn’t the issue. You are stressed and looking for help and a smile. Generally, price is not at the top of your mind.

        I agree with Cranky. If airlines were more consistent, people would accept it. But its the range of answers, and personalization that makes people crazy–the idea that “you” get it, but “I” dont. Its not the airlines fault life got in the way, and they dont owe you a piece of their profit. Customer service is not about discounting price, its about providing value. They owe you better service, nothing more, nothing less.

    2. David – I agree that the customer service aspect of this is difficult for someone who has to look a person in the eye directly. But there are plenty of difficult situations in the life of a customer service agent and it’s part of the job. Everyone has a sob story whether it’s a missed event due to a delay or something else. It just comes with the territory.

  2. I know that when I was seriously I’ll as a 13 year old and needed to be flown to hospital – with a heavy and bulky dialysis machine in tow, and my mum and brother, emotions were high for our family as it was. My mum was in a complete state and I felt so bad for her.

    Air France didn’t hesitate to accept the 50+ kg machine without a fee – they didnt even ask – and I don’t think they charged us the full fares either.

    I think as David righty says its easy to think it through rationally now but in that moment we appreciated what AF did to ease the journey a lot. I now see it as simple humanity but perhaps more cynically pure economics /customer service. Had they been difficult about it all I would almost certainly have a far less favourable view of the airline and never chosen to fly with them again.

    1. William – I think David SF Eastbay makes the point well below. When you got to your destination, did the rental car company give you a discount? Did the hotel cut the rate in half where you stayed? Probably not, and did you swear never to use them again? There is a weird double standard for airline customer service that doesn’t seem to apply in other businesses. Maybe the airlines have done that to themselves, but for whatever reason, people view airlines completely differently.

      1. My mother is 75 years old and she has been hospitalized yesterday, I am unemployed and I have no money to pay for a plane ticket so my mom has no support, she is alone and you guys think the airlines should not help.
        I am not asking for food, cars or hotels discounts, just to be able to be with my mom on this very moment because she needs me. You guys are cruel, god forgive them, they don’t know what they are saying.

        1. Carmen, I do feel bad for your situation, but the decision to living far away from elderly parents is a usually a conscious choice, and one with obvious consequences and implications as they continue to age…

          There are options if you don’t have the money — you can do a “fly now pay later” which is offered by just about every airline, but be aware that those are credit lines which carry >20% interest rates…

          1. Dear E,
            Thank you for your nice message.
            Some people think they can have control over things, including when you make as you call it a “conscious choice” in case there is an emergency, but the reality is that we are not in control, we can lose a job, a business, our home, even our health, anything is possible because nothing is permanent in life.
            Thank you for the advice about “fly now pay later” but with no work, no money and no help I will no be able to pay it so I prefer to do not engage into debts that I can not start to pay back. The point I was trying to make is you guys should be ‘human beings and not machines” with those who now are in a bad situation, and you should not be against a, airline compassionate fare for health emergencies or deaths of family members, keep in mind all of you guys that one day, whatever your money situation is right now, it could happen to you as well, I hope not, of course, and then you would understand that you would not be asking for having cheaper hotel rates, rental cars or restaurants discounts, but to hold the hand of your family member, after all, the best gift you can give to somebody you love is not money but your PRESENCE.

  3. The simplest way to respond would be, of course, to “agree to disagree”, and move on. I think you deserve better than that, as do your readers, and mine.

    Brett, I completely hear you when you say that (and I’m paraphrasing, but I think this is what it comes down to) that “rules are rules”. And I agree that there was no way the person I spoke to on the phone when I initially contact Virgin about my need to change travel plans could have done anything about that.

    I think I was clear about that in my post at Front-line customer service’s job, especially at large companies, is to get people off the phone as quickly as possible. Real customer service doesn’t happen until you ask for it.

    But I asked. I asked several people, and I did so both politely and by methodically walking through the details of the situation each time. Because, you know what, a thousand dollars is a lot of money to lose on a technicality.

    What I ultimately object(ed) to, and the reason I wrote about the experience, was the disingenuousness that ensued. Each and every person I encountered gave me the same robotic response: “these are our rules and we can’t break them”. Nonsense. Every company has rules, and every company breaks them when the situation fits.

    Leaving us at the question of whether the situation fit, in this case.

    Everyone, of course, thinks they’re special. I do, you do, your readers do. But I don’t think I’m special because my sister died and my father-in-law was ill. I’m special because once Virgin’s customer service machine stopped working it chewed me up just a little bit more, first by telling a person who was communicating in a way that screamed “knows what he’s talking about” that he didn’t, second, by pretending that they even have a customer service department (maybe that’s first, actually) and finally, by lying.

    Specifically, I’m talking about the fact that Virgin claimed they’d re-sell my traded-in Friday afternoon tickets for the same price I had paid for them weeks earlier. REALLY?

    Take a breath. Read that again. Having just charged me nearly $1,100 dollars extra for my Thursday night tickets because I had bought them on Thursday afternoon, Virgin expects anyone to believe?and has the nerve to claim to me, the guy they’d extracted that money from?that they’d sell the seats they had just reacquired on their Friday afternoon flight for less than they were able to get?

    As I said in my article, I understand that business is business. As I also said, people pay me to help them create and adjust these policies at their businesses. I get it.

    I even acknowledged that the airline business is an incredibly difficult one, and one where most of the players are losing money?which of course makes things “different”, almost by definition.

    And yes, I started out playing the bereavement card, and I accept that you’re probably right that bereavement discounts are small if they’re offered at all, and that we laypeople are operating under the wrong impression in this regard.

    But by the time I wrote my story?in fact, by the time I got on the phone and started looking for the better treatment I sought?this wasn’t about bereavement or the airline business, it was about customer service. And despite your snarky words on the matter, customer service really is one of the things my company gets paid to consult on. And lying is never, EVER a viable customer service policy.

    Let’s get past ALL of that, now, and cut to the chase: your response sounds like the thinking of someone who’s either myopic, or too well indoctrinated in a single way of looking at things to get outside his comfort zone.

    I wasn’t and ultimately still am not interested in “the way things are done in the airline business”. And hey, with most if not all of them losing money I think it’s fair to say that holding up the way airlines do business as representative of anything good would be ridiculous.

    I’m talking, simply, about the need to actually provide customer service. And if you don’t wish to do so, then to not pretend you do by even having a customer service executive like Ms. Fiorillo “on the masthead”.

    That’s it. Brett. Virgin America doesn’t have a customer service department, and I find it offensive that they claim to. And as I said, I’ve flown Virgin several times and said great things about them, a lot.

    Until now.

    1. I went and read your article, Jeff. And to be honest, I think it makes you come off as an entitled jackhole (not that you are, necessarily, just the tone I’m hearing). Unless VX has a specific bereavement policy, you weren’t entitled to anything, which generally calls for a softer tack than you chose to sail. Because let’s get one thing straight: you’re neither the boss of, nor the mother of, these CSRs – to go in with the mindset that you’re going to “talk some sense” into them is to set yourself up for failure. I haven’t ever had the pleasure of flying VX, nor the pain of calling their phone hell. But I imagine that a little pleasantness goes a long way (seems to go miles and miles with Delta and American).

      The facts as I see them: You called asking for something they don’t have to provide, came on too strong, and they started saying things just to try to get you off the phone. Should they have? No. But you seem to have acted in a manner that put you squarely in the “get rid of this guy” box.

      1. @FT – love the term ‘jackhole’ never heard it before – but it is lovely.
        @ Jeff – Cranky is far from myopic, he is typically outside the box.

    2. Thanks for chiming in, Jeff. I’ll address this comment in several pieces…

      But I asked. I asked several people, and I did so both politely and by methodically walking through the details of the situation each time. Because, you know what, a thousand dollars is a lot of money to lose on a technicality.

      What exactly about this is a technicality? You wanted to change your flight and there was a cost to doing that. This wasn’t a technicality but rather the same kind of thing that people pay for every day. Maybe somebody needs to change a ticket to get to an earlier business meeting. Maybe he or she needs to get home early because the babysitter can’t stay longer. There are a million different reasons why a change needs to be made and the cost to do so is clearly stated for all.

      What I ultimately object(ed) to, and the reason I wrote about the experience, was the disingenuousness that ensued. Each and every person I encountered gave me the same robotic response: ?these are our rules and we can?t break them?. Nonsense. Every company has rules, and every company breaks them when the situation fits.

      To me, the excuse that “these are our rules and we can’t break them” is a cop out. What they should say is, “these are our rules and we WON’T break them” instead. To be fair, most of the people you dealt with probably couldn’t break the rules because they aren’t empowered to do so. But they should be trained to not push the blame elsewhere in the airline because that just makes people mad. They are doing what’s right for the airline and they should support it even though it’s easier to just shift the blame.

      Specifically, I?m talking about the fact that Virgin claimed they?d re-sell my traded-in Friday afternoon tickets for the same price I had paid for them weeks earlier. REALLY?

      There’s no question that was a lie and a bad one at that. It sounds like someone who was poorly trained in customer service to me who just wanted to get off the phone with you. While that may have been the final insult, it seemed very clear from your post that you were objecting to being charged anything for the change. This lie was just icing on the cake but even if it hadn’t been told, I can’t imagine you would have been any happier with the end result.

      And despite your snarky words on the matter, customer service really is one of the things my company gets paid to consult on. And lying is never, EVER a viable customer service policy.

      My snarky words were not about what your company does. It’s about your attempt to flaunt that in front of the airline as a way to push them to give you a break because of the potential influence you might have.

      Let?s get past ALL of that, now, and cut to the chase: your response sounds like the thinking of someone who?s either myopic, or too well indoctrinated in a single way of looking at things to get outside his comfort zone.

      Too well indoctrinated, huh? How about simply someone who is realistic and has seen how this works from all sides? Every single person has a sob story and thinks he or she is entitled to an airline discount of some sort. This is not the type of behavior that people use with any other business. While I can’t even begin to quantify how much it would cost an airline in lost revenue to just give everyone what they want, it would be substantial.

      It should say something to you that Southwest, an airline which has received a silly number of awards for outstanding customer service, would have left you with the same result as you got with Virgin America. Southwest doesn’t have a change fee, so it wouldn’t have to waive it as Virgin America did, but you would still have been left paying the fare difference.

      Now would you have felt better because it came from someone with a Texas twang and a smile that shines through the phone? Maybe. Although at least Virgin America gave you some kind of concession, so I would think that would make you feel better. I do think airlines could do much better in the way they handle these situations but I’d bet pretty confidently that unless you got the fare difference waived or significantly discounted, you would still have been writing that post regardless of how it was handled.

      1. Thanks, back atcha, Brett. That ROCKED.

        I’ve been watching the comments all day, and trying to figure out how best to reply to them all and have what I write strike the correct tone. I’m genuinely gratified by all the activity, and while much more of it is on your side than mine, well, that’s OK.

        Because of the lie about reselling my old seats at the old price, you’re right, of course, that there’s very little chance I could have been made happy under pretty much any circumstances, but here’s what I think could have been ok (and yes, I realize the difference in dollars would be huge in my favor if this had happened):

        You have a $100 “change fee” per ticket? You know what? I get that. I think it’s high, but maybe not; enough people might need to touch that order that maybe the $100 actually represents something real-ish. So charge me that fee. But the fare change? Once again, refer back to the lie, and it’s ABSOLUTELY unconscionable.

        And remember, Virgin screwed up the fee refund: I got back the $100 for one ticket, but not the other.

        Like I said, I’ve been hoping I can figure out how best to reply to everyone, but … maybe this will be where I leave it. I really do think Virgin did wrong here, but I appreciate the (mostly self-selecting sample) of people who disagree with me.

        And sure, I have my own business and traffic goals to satisfy, so it’s even fair to get cynical about my intentions, as a couple of people did. But … customer service is supposed to be about service, and it sure felt as though Virgin’s customer service function was about saying “this is just how we do it, so go away” than about providing service. And that’s icky.

        1. To me, the “compassionate” and “rational” move would be to allow you to fly standby for free, but pay for the change if you wanted it confirmed. This would extend a courtesy, while protecting VX’s right to a profit.

        2. “You have a $100 ?change fee? per ticket? You know what? I get that. I think it?s high, but maybe not; enough people might need to touch that order that maybe the $100 actually represents something real-ish”

          You clearly don’t understand the airline business if you think the reason why they charge a change fee is because there is some sort of extra effort on the CSR’s part to do anything. The change fee is there as a penalty to discourage customers from making changes to their reservations without significantly good reason. When you change your reservation, for whatever reason, you’re in essence taking up TWO seats as the one you switched into is now taken, and the previous one, depending on the time frame of the change, is highly unlikely to be filled. Thats why they charge you a fee.

          It is also the reason why “refundable fares” (the bread and butter of the legacies with business travelers) are so expensive, because if you cancel the travel at any time, you get all of your money back and the airline is left holding the bag. You pay the premium for that. It is also why travel insurance is so popular as well, in the event that something DOES happen, you get compensated for the difference.

  4. Should it be policy? No
    Should airlines do it? Yes

    To The Answer Guy, I’m sure it felt like the airline was taking advantage of his situation. Because he had a family emergency, he suddenly has to pay a lot more. On the surface to an occasional traveler not privy to the inside business, it would certainly feel that way.

    From an airline’s point of view, I could see these types of requests becoming major hassles. Not hassles in dealing with those with legit issues, but hassles in keeping those without legit issues from taking advantage of it.

    What should Virgin America have done? The easy answer is they should have let him on the flight without a fare difference, but what we don’t know is how many of these “family emergency” requests do they get a day? Not taking any gravity away from the Answer Man’s family emergency, Virgin America probably has people calling them all the time with these types of stories, and they have no way to determine if they’re true or not.

    What he was looking for was a little bit of compassion. Problem is, you can’t mandate compassion company-wide, you can only enable it. Then your image is essentially at the mercy of your employee talking to The Answer Man.

    Long story short, I get both sides and you’re both arguing two different things, really.

    Yes, Virgin America probably should have given him a ride home without the extra fees.
    No, there was no structure in place to do that, nor should there really be one.

  5. Couple of things:

    Overall, I mainly agree with Brett. Airlines should do what they can, but given the amount of times these emergencies happen, they’d be losing a lot more than they already are if everyone got discounts on these types of tickets.

    Comparing the Peninsula to Virgin America is apples to oranges. One is a luxury hotel known for outstanding customer service and attention to detail, and the other is a money-losing discount airline. I’d expect the Peninsula to excel, and I’d expect VA not to – and that’s what happened.

    And finally, I love social media, blogs, and email. Sending a note to Branson, or posting about him to their Twitter feed (just an example, I know it didn’t happen here) may feel good at the moment, but I’d never expect him to respond. Same with Cush. It’d be arrogant of me to think he would reply. At best whoever reads his emails would turn it over to someone else.

    Actually, one more thing. It’s a bit extreme to say they don’t have customer service because this didn’t go the way someone wanted. I fly jetBlue a lot. A LOT. And I’ve always had great experiences with them – even asking for some crazy changes a few times. But I’m sure that given the number of flights, passengers, crew issues, etc that someone, at some point has asked B6 for something, and didn’t get their way. Doesn’t mean they don’t have customer service.

  6. While bereavement fares may not be cheapest, they do offer more flexibility than typical discounted tickets. For example, AA’s bereavement fare is booked in W class, but you can make changes without penalty. Unfortunately, it’s only available if that booking class is available.

    On a related topic, I think it would be interesting to compare the medical waiver with a ticket that’s already booked. UA used to be able to provide credit voucher with a doctor’s note – now they want to charge $50 processing fee. AA does not have a medical waiver – only death of the passenger or the passenger’s family member.

  7. I generally have to agree with Brett here. Specifically, why do people single out airlines for such a discount?

    Do people generally expect the florist to offer a bereavement discount when told that the arrangement is for a funeral? Do people generally expect the caterer to give a discount when told that the spread is for the post-funeral reception? I would say the answer is no to both…so then why then do people expect the airlines to offer a bereavement discount? And if your response is that you don’t necessarily need to have flowers or food at a funeral, but you do need to get there physically, so air travel is a necessity rather than a nice-to-have, than the next logical question would be why don’t we demand bereavement discounts from funeral homes (after all, at least basic funereal arrangements are generally a necessity by state law…)?

    1. Austin, there are to key differences between airline bereavement fares and all other examples, history and fare escalation.

      The airlines had bereavement fares for years under deregulation and through 2001-2005 timeframe. The bereavement fare was unique to the airline transport industry.

      WRT Fare escalation, in no other industry does the product increase dramatically in price as the supply dwindles. What I paid for banannas yesterday is the same or nearly the same as all recent previous grocery trips.

      1. Actually, basic economics dictates that prices increase (occasionally dramatically) as supply dwindles. Using your bananas as an example, I am sure you pay more for produce in the off-season, for example. And just a few weeks ago, there was a news “story” making the rounds that there would be a bacon shortage (which was actually the UK variety–closer to what US folks would call Canadian bacon)–in reality, we won’t run out of bacon, but the prices will go up to reflect the shortage.

        The real problem with your banana example, however, is that bananas (and most everything else we buy) is a commodity product. Any ripe or soon-to-be-ripe banana is effectively identical to any other banana, and you really don’t care which one you get.

        Airline seats, on the other hand, are not a commodity product, in the sense that a seat departing two weeks or two months from now is not an effective substitution for a seat departing tomorrow (indeed, for some people, but not everyone, a seat departing at 9am is not a substitution for a seat departing at 5pm the same day).

        For example, if a person purchased a ticket last month to fly tomorrow, and then today wants to switch to another flight, the closest equivalent product would actually be another flight a month from now, not a flight in a couple of days. Indeed, in most instances the fare for a flight a month from now would be about the same as what you paid last month, since the lead time (advance purchase) is roughly the same–all you would be out is the change fee. Rather, it is because you are buying a significantly different product, a seat tomorrow rather than a seat in a month, that you must pay substantially more.

    2. To use you rental car (or florist) analogy Austin, suppose I went into the rent car company and said that I did not want a car tomorrow, but I do want one today…and the rent car company has a car spare today. I can understand a small change fee, but to charge me for the spare car today PLUS a great chunk of the car I was going to use tomorrow is pretty nasty. Especially if the reason is that I have had a bereavement. Most rental car companies, I believe, would do the switch for a small (if any) fee if they had a car available today. Same for the florist – if I cancelled an arrangement tomorrow, but took an arrangement of equal value sitting in the window today, most florists would be delighted – flower arrangements fresh today, like airline seats vacant today are worthless tomorrow. If that seat goes out empty today, that is a total loss to the airline. If someone takes that empty seat today, then that gives the airline a chance to sell tomorrow’s seat for a profit.

  8. In general, I agree that there really shouldn’t be discounts for whatever sort of emergencies. However, one big advantage of Bereavement Fares (at least formerly) was that they tended to be quite flexible. I’d say that waiving change fees is understandable, but unless a relatively expensive flexible fare was bought in the first place, there’s no need to waive fare differences or charge cheaper fares.

    And I’m not saying this because I haven’t had to travel because of family emergencies. A few years ago I had a family member die, and they day before that, I got a transcon ticket 4 hours in advance to see them. Yes, it was expensive. What did I do about it? I sucked it up and payed it like a big boy instead of trying to argue that I was special.

    Having such fares or discounts also becomes a slippery slope to claiming less-than true emergencies as things that are really urgent. One could easily argue that it’s an emergency that someone significant has broken their leg and can’t get around or do anything without help, although it’s not life-threatening. But does that really qualify for a bereavement fare, whether official or not? Even though I think most people would answer ‘no’, there isn’t a clear dividing line between a true emergency and not. And this is just people being honest – nevermind some people that would lie or try to cheat the system.

    One last thing: if The Answer Guy thinks Virgin America was bad, I doubt he would get a different response from other airlines. The ‘quality’ of customer service might have varied a bit and other airlines might have been easier to reach, but in the end, I have a sneaking suspicion that no airline would have good ‘quality’ customer service since they wouldn’t have given the answer that he wanted.

  9. Hi Cranky, A few grammar/typos in this post. It seems to be becoming a continual issue, please don’t let the quality of the blog slide.

  10. Does a hospital give you a discount on a hospital stay if you die…no

    Does a gas station sell you gas cheaper if you need gas to rush to the airport/hospital to see a loved one before they die….no

    Does a grocery store give you a discount for all the food you are buying to feed people at the house after the funeral….no

    So why does an airline have to give you a discount/special treatment for a family emergency? Not saying they don’t or shouldn’t, but you shouldn’t expect them to, or complain if they don’t do more.

    1. I’m going to nitpick. The hospital does give you a discount if you can’t pay. It also gives your estate a discount it can’t pay.

      That being said this is a built in cost of doing business for them, an hospital pricing is pretty opaque. Airlines probably used to build this cost in, but since people buy airline tickets based on price they cut this cost out and lowered their fares. (Not necessarily in that order.)

      1. Nick – The hospital gives you a discount because it is required to serve you if you walk into the emergency room. It gives you a discount because otherwise it won’t get paid at all.

  11. First off I truely feel bad for Jeff and his fam.ily. I hope they can make it through the tough time as death and decline of health in a friend or family member is never easy. I think in his situation he was looking for more of compassion in dealing with him when I read what happened. His complaint dealt mainly (from my perspective) the customer service aspect. While I don’t think he deserved a fare reduction that he wanted; I believe they could have been more careful how they handled his situation. This is just my opinion on his specific case. Having stated this; I do feel airlines should not be giving any type of fare reduction. People are taking advantage of a system that was put in place for some time. I haven’t traveled by bus or Amtrak for awhile, but assume that there would be little they would do to help a traveler with a situation like this. It comes down to the traveling industry still being a profit making business. If they do this for one person they cannot discriminate against it by a case by case situation. Lets take Virgin America for this example. I read they are now in thr position of having to reduce their capacity and need short term leave for their employees. This comes down to who do we give the discounts and refunds to and who do we not give it to. They need to hold strong with these things or else it could come down to financial collapse of a profit making organization.

  12. I agree with the post 100%. Unless it’s a major holiday weekend you can get fly most major city pairs one way for under $500. I’ve had to fly to the midwest for plenty of funerals over the past 10 years and while stressful at the time most people know (especially now) who’s cheap, how to Kayak, and alternative airports as well.

    But I?d also posit that the rules and terms are going to become less static “off the record” due to the power of social media. The threat of immediate negative publicity, at an unknown level, thrusts PR and high level customer service folks into the threat of being bullied around by well wired customers, not knowing which ?no? decision might turn viral when they stand their ground.

    An example of this is the veteran who was denied a refund by Spirit when he was unable to take his flight. News outlets around the country picked up the story and painted Spirit as cold and uncaring. Some questioned why a cheap fare would even be worth the effort recovering, or compared it to David SF’s examples of buying a ticket at the theater and unable to attend. (Most people understand those are firm sales and don?t pursue a refund.)

    This new concept is the same as threatening a restaurant with a negative Yelp review if they don?t bow acquiesce to your demands. It?s not right, but some business give a bossy and threatening customer what the want to appease them and quell a negative story. I forget which airlines have Twitter agents in place but that?s exactly what it?s there for.

    It’s not right, but in my opinion ?greasing the squeaky wheel? is going to the be new way of customer service, with fluid unpublished policies to accommodate it.

  13. The biggest problem is, as you already pointed out, fraud. Without proof that such an emergency exists, there are unfortunately people who would consistently take advantage of potential bereavement fares and any other form of sympathy. I think there is room for some sympathy from the airline, but unfortunately this is going to be limited. While I sympathize with Jeff, that does not change the fact that he came off extremely hostile in his emails to the airline (And seriously everyone seems to think that having a blog is some sort of major status symbol. Seriously, there’s this one called cranky flier……). I’m not entirely sure what he expected the response to be. It kind of sucks that the airline didn’t give him a full refund but at the end of the day it is the policy. Could it be changed for the better? I think so, but he more or less seems to be getting angry at the fact that they didn’t give him the answer he wanted.

  14. I mostly agree with the article. Last minute travel is expensive and comes at a premium. Everyone travels for a reason, be it business, leisure or the untimely death of a family member.

    –That said, airlines may consider extending additional customer service to these customers. It’s a gesture of goodwill and something they’ll remember when they need to fly again. It could be a no-bump policy or seat towards the front to get off earlier.

    As some pointed out, compassion goes a long way in any industry. The reason airlines like Southwest are known for their service is because employees give off the sense that they care, even if they don’t offer a bereavement discount.

  15. I say no — and I say that as someone who has used these fares in the past. You wouldn’t go to a funeral director and ask for a discount on their services. You wouldn’t ask the flower company for a deal on flowers. You wouldn’t go to the grocery store and ask for a discount on food for the service. You don’t go to any part of the funeral chain and ask for a discount, so why should airlines do it? Airlines are a business, just like other service providers like restaurants, clothing stores, etc. They are not a public utility. I’ve used Priceline and Hotwire with great success for last-minute fares. And while I do sympathize with Jeff, I disagree that he feels as if it’s his right to get Virgin America (or any other airline) to yield to his request. For the record, I have worked for two airlines and written about aviation issues for 20 years, so I’ve seen all sides of this.

  16. The fact is, we wouldn’t even discuss this if so many people hadn’t scammed the airlines and claimed they needed a bereavement fare when they didn’t. Years of being scammed led to more stringent rules now. So we can blame – us – for these rules today. That said, airline should many exceptions when they believe it will help the customer and their reputation. More frontline employees should be empowered to make special exceptions, though few do today because their managers come down hard on them. Extreme-situation flexibility is still something airline customer service is learning.

  17. Lots of good comments here on both sides.

    As already mentioned, the florist, rental car company, hotel, or caterer aren’t cutting their rates. Why is the airline expected to? In a lot of cases, the airline is probably already the cheapest part of an unexpected trip for a funeral…

    I do agree with the idea of airlines waiving penalties for changes, and maybe issuing a refund when situations warrant, but that’s about all that they should be offering.

    When I was a ticket counter supervisor a bazillion years ago, I received exactly two “bad letters” from customers. One was from a woman whose husband showed up at the airport on Sunday afternoon, with his golf clubs, flying to Myrtle Beach a day later than what he’d been ticketed for. He proceeded to claim he needed a bereavement waiver to get out of a $400 increase in fare…

    When asked for the name of the funeral home & deceased, he provided these, but given the golf clubs, we decided to call…

    The funeral home did have record of the name of the deceased, but the customer insisted the funeral and burial were on Saturday, which is why he couldn’t fly. Being ignorant of Jewish burial laws, I didn’t pick up on it, but the guy at the funeral home was pretty surprised with the question, and even laughed if I recall.

    We refused to waive the add-collect, and I was the bad guy. Oh well.

  18. So really the issue is about fairly assessing change fees and fare increases. I am a fairly frequent flier, and I have to tell you, since most of my domestic flights are short to medium haul, I take Southwest because of the lack of change fees. Since they are adding wi-fi to most of their aircraft, I could take WN cross country as well (on a non stop – certainly not on the Texas milk run).

    Here’s the thing, I get why airlines charge a change fee – you took some of their inventory when it had a certain value, and held onto it, and when you want to change, you have impacted the dynamic of the buying curve such that they may not be able to sell the seat before the flight – thus spoiled inventory. Just as if you bought a tomato at the grocery store, took it home, brought it back and returned it, it may no longer have the same value.

    HOWEVER their fees are outrageous, and serve to tick people off more than not, which adds to the stress of travel…which amps the issues. Airlines have enough data to know what flights they will be able to resell the unused seat from a change at a better price and which flights are losers. A more responsible – and understandable by the customer – change policy would be to charge fees based on the likelihood of sale.

    OR start allowing name changes – and a business opportunity is the resale of airline seats. If I know that I cannot make a trip, and the airline wants $150 to change my flight, let me sell my ticket for whatever I can get for it, and I will pay a nominal name change fee (less than the $150). I can resell my tickets to a show or game, why not my airline seat (security issues aside – but they have the super duper database that knows all anyway – so that is probably less of an issue now). But airlines that get too greedy on the change fees, will find themselves undercut by WN or upstarts that find a way to manage their revenue and still not screw the passenger.

    1. John,

      I would be interested to see a system where you can “return” your original tickets to the airline to be resold. Instead of paying change fee + fare difference, you pay change fee plus new ticket upfront, and if your original ticket re-sells, the airline sends you a check for how much they sold it for. It’s a way to do airline ticket resale (closer to) within current regulations. The change fee would be necessary to keep this from turning into a stock market.

      The chanciness of the system could be annoying, but would make flyers much less mad when they know that their original ticket will be resold for about as much as their new ticket, and the airline is double-profiting from their last minute change. Flyers of less-than-full flights would lose out with the system, though.

      From the airline’s POV, this eliminates financial risk of not being able to resell tickets, but also eliminates profit from double-sold tickets (not counting any change fees).

      1. Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by the “concert” model of selling seats. People can go on and buy a ticket for an exact seat with a price tag on it. Then you can do what you want with it, but only through airline channels. In other words, you can resell it, but there will be a fee that the airline charges to resell it.

        The problem of selling a specific seat, however, is that when it comes to people making connections, you really can’t just add the prices of the two seats up. That’s the one area where I get stuck on this model.

        1. Interesting though…There are a few ULCCs out there (like Scoot or Tiger) that never provide connections. You have to re-claim your bags and re-check them for your next flight. So, you really do buy 2 tickets if you need to connect – you have to wonder if that would be possible for these airlines. Also, would this model make overbooking impossible?

          1. Matthew – Yes, for low cost carriers that don’t sell connections like Allegiant, it’s a much easier proposition. And the concert model does require the ending of overbooking. I mean, I guess you could have some kind of standby queue if you really wanted to fill a seat that goes empty, but you wouldn’t be able to sell more seats than you have in advance.

        2. Why only through airline channels? Why not through a Stub Hub? or Kayak? Frankly with the concept of weblining – let people pull any itinerary together. why not let me the leasee of a specific seat sub let it to whomever I wish through whatever means that I wish? If I want the name change option on my seat that I lease, I pay 34.95 name change fee to the airline ($ made up) ((oh, and that is the buy the option at the time of booking price; and the buy it later price is $150)), and then I have the right to sell it to anyone. The airline RM models become simpler, they sell the seat once, and they focus on the ancillaries. With weblining I go to and select an itinerary, and or Kayak pulls the potential flight schedules and connects to ebay or Craigs List for secondary market seats to see what the prices are and compares it with the buy direct from the airline sites. Maybe priceline gets in the act so that people can bid or, negotiate the seat prices on the secondary market. Gives the consumer another option to sell their seats.

          I know that there are a lot of moving parts here, but technically doable, and could actually add more fees to the airline … maybe the name change option is 10% premium on the fare, think of additional fees that could roll in on that deal…

          1. John – It’s true, you could put the fee up front instead of at the time of assigning the ticket to someone else but then you would still only be able to sell the entire ticket. If you started allowing people to sell in pieces, then you blow up the entire airline pricing model and it won’t work. (It would be too easy for airlines with traditional models to undercut.)

            For niche leisure-based airlines, this makes a ton of sense. Allegiant has this option today where you can change names for a fee. But Allegiant doesn’t really compete with anyone in most markets and it doesn’t do connections. So it’s a much simpler thing to implement.

            Still, I’ve always thought there was something here. It’s just tough to figure out exactly how to make it work.

  19. I’m not without sympathy for The Answer Guy, but he simply does not understand the airline business. Time is money in this business. Simply put, one ticket is not the same as another. A ticket for a flight tomorrow is worth more than one for a flight in three months. That’s because the value to passengers is different. A businessperson needing to get there tomorrow is willing to pay more money; a leisure traveler is not. So the next-day ticket has a higher value to the consumer.

    Consider tickets for an NBA game. A ticket on the floor is worth more than one in the mezzanine, even though both are for the same event. That’s the issue – he wanted floor seats for the mezzanine price.

    There is no gain for the airlines to start breaking these rules. If they did, they’d be inundated with people claiming “I’ve got to get home, my mom is sick”. And they’d have to have low-paid people at the counter trying to decide if it’s true. Do you want them to start taking doctors’ notes? No.

    If you need to get somewhere fast, it’ll cost you. Don’t expect anything for free. The Knicks aren’t going to give you a seat beside Spike Lee if you paid for the nosebleed section. Even if you’re a good guy with a good story.

    Lastly for the Answer Guy, there are always alternatives. Go to Priceline…Hotwire…and other last-minute sites. They find those empty seats and get you a deal on them. I went through and found a one-way ticket from LAX to JFK for tomorrow for $123. There’s a stop enroute somewhere, and it’s 10 hours total, but it’s cheap. And there is scheduled service for $337.

  20. When I read the post title, I expected that I would disagree. Once I read Jeff’s presentation of events, my sympathy quickly evaporated.

  21. John,

    When I stumbled on your article that you posted in the comments section of another forum at first it made me angry. It wasn’t how you were treated, but how YOU treated the situation. I work for Cranky Concierge and I’ve NEVER name dropped this blog or Brett when trying to fix situations. In the past 10 or so problems, I’ve only ran across 1 person who knew “what we were” and even then, the agent followed procedure and we got the customer taken care of (he mentioned if this would end up on the blog, I told him no, it wasn’t that ‘bad’.. hah). I think the worst I’ve done is included Cranky Concierge in tweets when dealing with Airline social media groups. But I think including your blog didn’t do anything helpful, as it comes across as blackmail to the airline: Do as I say or I’m going to go public with it.

    Now to your circumstances. I think it could have been handled MUCH differently. You didn’t seem to get res agents that were on the ball. I spent 14 years in the airline business and if I got your call or got you at the airport, I still would have charged you but I would have probably made it less of a sting. At USAirways we could do that (its called force-faring). I would rarely let someone go “free”, but at the time our policy was to at least get funds to cover the change fee. There have been some people that the charge is-what-it-is, and others I’ve found a way to reduce the fee without biting so much into their pocket book. I know some staff has gone as far as to offer a buddy pass to someone who couldn’t afford the fare.

    I bet if someone at Virgin *was* awake and understood your predicament, things would have turned out differently if your change fee was only $500 vs almost $1,000.

    1. Thanks. That’s kind of what I said above:

      “You have a $100 ?change fee? per ticket? You know what? I get that. I think it?s high, but maybe not; enough people might need to touch that order that maybe the $100 actually represents something real-ish. So charge me that fee. But the fare change? Once again, refer back to the lie, and it?s ABSOLUTELY unconscionable.”

      And I realize I come off a little bit, shall we say, forceful, but at the end of the day this really was all about the way I was handled, not the outcome.

      And I really appreciate you digesting my entire long-winded post; I think that most people who do would at least come to the kind of conclusion you did !

      1. Jeff, not bad!

        And one of our “secrets” that will help you or anyone in the future: If you don’t like what you hear on the phone, hang up and try again. OR head to the airport. Airport agents are more willing to help than someone on the phone and typically have more “power”. This is one reason many frequent flyers were mad (and still mad) that the City Ticket Offices have closed – it was easier to go see a human and take care of things.

        In the midst of everything going on, I know a trip to the airport is not something you would want to do, but you probably would have had a much different outcome. But for anyone, sometimes that $5 charge for parking and 30 minute drive can save you a lot of heart ache.

        1. One of the people I spoke with at VA after the fact suggested going to the airport, as well. Funny thing is that she also said the airport agents MIGHT actually charge MORE, so … well I left that out of the story when I wrote it.

          Appreciate it . . . and of course, it’s advice I hope to never need to remember!

  22. Of course, airlines like any business can offer a discount for almost anything…AAA or AARP membership, corporate affiliation, military status (someone as an active member, sometimes as a retiree), for spending at your friendly supermarket, and yes, for bereavement. Or, they might not want to make discounts for anything. That’s their prerogative. (Be careful though. Don’t get caught discriminating.)

    We all know travel occurs for many reasons, some more serious than others. Surprise: we all want to get the lowest fare and airlines want to make as much money as they can.

    What makes so many of us unhappy with airlines is how they can away with a system, one driven by revenue management, that seems so one-sided against the customer. It’s not just when we fly for bereavement, it’s any trip, many times for which the timing is beyond our control.

    Airlines, more than most other industries I would submit, seem to have taken pricing to such an extreme, with the wide differences in prices for essentially the same product, than anything most of us are or will ever face. It’s the wide disparity of fares with rules, rules the airlines say they must follow. Like a $159 fare one minute; $1,300 the next. Rules that airlines make and can break.

    I know, it’s like our taxes. We complain about how we think we have to pay too much in taxes and the politicians answer: don’t worry, I going to re-write the tax code. Sure! But, I still think the airlines could change their pricing strategies and the bereavement fare issue would go away. I also believe in the Great Pumpkin, me and Linus!

  23. Easy to be, easy to say….”the armchair quarterback” (you)…unless you’ve been in the situation of either a trauma of family member, death of a family member, or other catastrophe at home then lets leave the decision making to those in charge….Enough of this lip service already………………….

  24. I was in a bereavement situation in 1990, and was a high mileage frequent flyer with Delta Airlines. I was able to get a half-priced fare with documentation of the bereavement. However, the airline industry has changed dramatically since then. More recently, my mother was gravely ill in Texas, and the quickest way to get to Texas was via Delta. I desperately wanted to get home as quickly as possible from upstate New York. No more bereavement fares. However, I got a free upgrade to first class with my change fee and fare differential because coach was full. And I’m not longer a Delta frequent flyer. The flying public will NOT pay the higher fares the industry needs to stay solvent and profitable, which is why we see all these extra fees. If any airline did waivers for everyone in this situation, they would not remain profitable. It doesn’t sounce like Virgin America has enlightened customer service, but I can’t fault them for not giving this guy what he wanted, which was essentially, a free ticket.

  25. It’s quite funny to see how some people think they are *entitled* to something based on their “unique” problem or situation.

    Sometimes sh*t happens and unless one is prepared for it (e.g., via insurance or a “rainy day fund”), it will cost a bit of money to deal with it. That’s life.

  26. I got off a late-evening United flight from LAX to JFK a couple of years ago, and when I turned on my phone, the voicemail erupted with messages that my father had died. I had to return to LAX on the next available flight.

    The phone agent was extremely helpful. The redeye to LAX had already left, so she changed my return flight to the next morning without a fare penalty, advised me to stand by for the earlier full flight in case a seat became available, charged me the change fee, and told me how to get it waived by submitting a copy of the death certificate

    The gate agent put me at the top of the standby list for the first flight out, but everyone showed up ? she apologized and said she would have upgraded me had a seat been available.

    The change fee waiver was done a week after I sent a copy of the death certificate.

    United did everything they could to take care of my emergency, which is one of the reasons I’ve remained loyal to them despite their merger troubles and downgrade of Premier benefits.

  27. Customer Service cuts both ways…the customer has to be willing to be reasonably served. In the last few months of her life, my wife and I made the decision to move her to be closer to family in central Indiana. I’d fly in from our home in Phoenix whenever I could but, as fate would have it, the call that she had a few hours of life remaining came the day before the super bowl.

    A quick Internet search showed that American had seats and a call to their reservation center got results. I didn’t beg or plead rather, just simply told the agent that answered my call that I needed to get to Indianapolis as soon as possible to be with my wife and needed help to find the best option to get me there. We got it locked in and off I went that afternoon. They even held (although I can’t say if it was held specifically for me – though I was the last person to board) my connection and pulled my bag up into the jetway in Indianapolis (so I wouldn’t have to wait at baggage claim). I made it to my wife’s side and was holding her hand when she passed.

    I can’t agree that customer service is dead – maybe tarnished but, not dead. I had simple, realistic, expectations, that I clearly communicated to those concerned. Was American obligated to hold a connection or make the baggage claim process easier? No. Did it make a difference to me? Yes! Will I ever expect it to happen again? Not on your life…

    1. Tom — Many dead-on comments have been made in this debate, but yours is one of the best: “Customer Service cuts both ways…the customer has to be willing to be reasonably served.” Granted, having been in similar situations as others here, being reasonable is difficult.

      A rhetorical question: given that it is 34 years after deregulation, when will nostalgia for service from the propeller era completely go away? Like bereavement fares?

  28. I have had a couple of family medical emergencies that required my prompt attention: the sudden, unexpected death of a niece and a dying younger brother. Because the only quick way out of Alaska is to fly, we are somewhat captive.

    I asked about bereavement fare, thihnking that I might get a fare break, and was advised it was 15% off full fare. Well, there were less expensive fares than that, so it didn’t matter. On the other, I was already booked, but on a later flight. I paid a nominal difference and Alaska Airlines waived the change fee.

    The bottom line for me was that it was more important to be with my family than to argue for some kind of special treatment.

  29. I look at this somewhat differently. If in a time of personal tragedy if an airline does anything to help a victim, they will earn that customer’s loyalty and future business. Traveling to my brother’s funeral in June, AA gave me a bereavement fare, but there was no discount, however if I needed to make changes there would be no change fees, it was the same as a full fare ticket. Some may think passenger loyalty is dead, but I think some kindness and any special fare or service at all will earn loyalty and future business not to mention word of mouth advertising.

  30. Brett,

    Going back to a previous life – I handled airlines in the days of the old 22/45 day excursion fares, when exceptions for medical reasons were permitted. At one point virtually every passenger had a doctors note attached to their ticket explaining why the extension / exception should be permitted. Clearly, 95% of them (at least) were fraudulent, and eventually these fares went the way of the do-do bird.

    There is no doubt that if there is a defined “policy” that it will be abused. But, there should always be exceptions, and we should always take care of people in genuine emergencies.

    The application of the “exceptions” (I’m reluctant to call it a “policy”) is the challenge. In my view, an airline should have a process to channel these requests to someone who can evaluate the need, and act appropriately. Yes, it will always be questioned, but done properly it will work.

    Look at the process that airlines use to handle accidents and incidents. They have a corps of (usually volunteer) people trained to respond, and for the most part these people do an excellent job.

    Perhaps a group along these lines would be useful?

    In my view this is needed more for international travel, than for domestic, simply because of the $$$’s involved, but that’s another story!

    1. Ed – I think you do see that in some senses. While I imagine each airline handles it differently, the elite desks should have more leverage in being able to help customers in need. So if you are loyal to the airline, then the airline will be a little more flexible with you in return.

      While I do think having flexibility in these kinds of instances can be helpful in retaining loyalty, I am skeptical that it develops it in the first place. Most people shop on price and schedule, and so while waiving a fee might give the person the warm and fuzzies, that person will still just look at the fare on the next trip.

  31. Airlines provide bereavement fares not out of sympathy, but because it is good business practice. In this day and age, news travels fast, and no airline wants to see “ABC airline charges family $5000 to see dying grandma” on the front page of the newspaper. Road warriors may understand that this is the going rate, but normal people would be very highly offended by this and avoid that airline in the future. On the flip side, if an airline is reasonable and accommodates someone in their time of need, they are likely to come back to that airline and tell their friends about their experience as well.

  32. “Airport agents are more willing to help than someone on the phone and typically have more ?power?.
    I worked for an airline and I know that statement to be true. I remember we had a supervisor who customers and employees sometimes feared but I have seen her involved in so many acts of kindness with passengers. But with passengers who were respectful to her and didnt make threats or demands. Make a threat or demand to her and you might be fortunate to get on the plane even if you had a ticket! And I pretty much agree. At times it was difficult not be emotional when a passenger came to you with legitimate problem. Given the opportunity, airline employees will usually do the right thing.

  33. I’ve got to agree with FT_Roy.

    Your post and email messages come across as demanding and confrontational and they reek of DYKWIA-ism. You said it yourself: “I’m asking this get presidential, preferential, outside-the-box treatment”. I’ve never run an airline, but I have to imagine that Richard Branson and David Cush have better things to do than deal with trivial (sorry, but that’s what it is) customer service issues.

    Like most of us, you had the option of buying a flexible ticket at the time of purchase but chose to go with a discount fare that has heavy restrictions. That’s a gamble. Most times it works out fine, but every once in a while you’re going to lose that bet.

    Also, not to get all 1% about it, but why is a CEO who can afford to stay at the Peninsula devoting so much time and energy to quibbling over a few hundred bucks?

      1. I think the question relates to if the entire trip was covered, then Trip Interruption / Medical would kick in and allow them to resechedule, not some new insurance product that buys tickets. However, I believe you are correct, that since the travellers are not the injured parties, they are not covered for this

  34. Brett, I agree with eolesen above (as I have since the days of PB moderation) but I particularly agree with the other prior comments about JY staying at the Peninsula, yet flying el cheapo. I’d bet he was using some sort of comp rate there also

    1. I’ve been mostly quiet as I’ve been considering my response to all of this stuff, but I thought this comment screamed out for a serious and direct response rather than be lumped in with my next salvo.

      There are a couple of things I’d like to clarify for you and the person who asked why a guy who stays at such a high end hotel has an issue with the money this thing cost.

      First, let me be clear about something that I suspect most of the participants here will howl about: I see a seat on an airplane as a commodity, and yes, I want it cheap. PLEASE DON’T REACT YET, THERE’S MORE.

      I noticed that what passes for first class on Virgin doesn’t look very first class at all. It’s right with everyone else. The seats are close together. The leg room is lacking. There’s food and the movies are free? Not enough to justify the huge difference in expense.

      Now, IN GENERAL I fly coach because I don’t usually feel as though first class is worth it. Not always; I’ve certainly flown first class enough to have a meaningful opinion. And you know what? If I’m already paying $8,000 for a first-class ticket for a long flight I’ll happily pay $11,000 for even better … again, assuming I grok the difference and the value equation. But in this case none of that was in play and yes, I happened to have had an inexpensive, bought-ahead-of-time ticket.

      Hotels are different. I don’t stay in “hotel coach” because I want to be comfortable and feel well taken care of. Let’s face it; you NEVER really feel that on a plane, short of Top-class on a carrier like Singapore Air (refer back to the jump from 1st class to better yet).

      And by the way: how do we define El Cheapo? Coach is coach, perceived differences for extras like paying for the exit row notwithstanding. If I bought that coach ticket three weeks ahead of time I paid a different price than if I bought it three days ahead of time but when I sit in that seat it’s El Cheapo to my backside and legs either way.

      I suspect there will be knee-jerk reactions to this just as there were to, but the answer is “I stay in nice hotels because I like nice hotels, but to me a seat on a plane is a seat on a plane”. And my point was ALWAYS that I felt as though VA just didn’t care (duh) regardless of the details that have been so microscopically analyzed here. THAT was what I was talking about, not the nuances of the air travel business.

      1. Jeff – Though I personally see things very differently, there is nothing wrong with having this attitude: “I see a seat on an airplane as a commodity, and yes, I want it cheap.” But if you have that attitude, what incentive does any airline have to go out of its way to bend rules? None. You don’t care who you fly – you just want a cheap seat. You got it but that means you’re not going to get any sort of special privilege.

        1. I hear you. But here’s where I think that doesn’t matter:

          Other than me happening to have booked a little while ahead of time, VA didn’t have any reason to believe I had any opinion on the matter of commodity pricing and purchasing. In fact, what I told the people I spoke with and wrote to was that I was a fan of Virgin, both America and Atlantic. And this was true.

          Also fact: until this issue occurred, all other things being (even close to) equal, I always selected Virgin over Delta, American, United (err . . . Continental), whomever. As I said, flying with them feels just a bit more civilized. Now, instead, I will be going out of my way to avoid them.

          More than anything, let’s remember where I started; if you believe, unfortunate discussion about money or not, that my issue was not feeling cared for . . . quite the opposite, in this case . . . then none of this even matters. I’m happy to pay for what I buy. I bought a pair of tickets. I sold them back to Virgin at the same price I had paid for them, and they then sold me a pair of more expensive tickets . . . and resold the ones I had just sold them, at a profit.

          I also said I understand the idea of greed, so putting an extra thousand dollars in the kitty is of course a win. But they did it at my expense, under all the circumstances I described, and think what you may about the way was written, I was (I hope) polite and friendly on the phone, which all happened first.

          Of course, had it gone in the way I wished for and requested, we wouldn’t thave had the opportunity to engage in this lively discourse ;-)

          1. Jeff – Airlines are probably more savvy than you think. If you were an elite member, they would have noted that and realized that you are likely more valuable as a client. They also would have reacted differently if you had paid for a First Class seat or maybe even Main Cabin Select.

            For the most part, people treat airline seats like commodities so it makes sense for airlines to assume that’s the case unless they know otherwise.

  35. I know how upsetting it can be to have an emergency and feel ripped off by the airlines. When it happens to you, you feel like you’re being betrayed. However, from a logical standpoint, it would be a tremendous drain on the airline to have to accommodate every emergency flight. As has been mentioned there are many low cost airlines that make the trip a little more bearable on the pocket book.
    Great article on a touchy subject, Brett!

  36. My issue with the whole idea of “compassion” is that 1) “compassion” too frequently gets misused by people looking for a free ride, and 2) the “compassion” crowd can’t seem to find a situation that doesn’t fit the definition of needing an exception. Just go take a look at some of the stories and comments on Chris Elliott’s blog to see what I mean. Would a death or serious illness in the family like cancer deserve some consideration from an airline? Sure. But how far do you take it? Does a broken leg warrant an exception to the rules? Your second cousin having a heart attack? Best friend’s wife got the flu and now you need to babysit? It’s certainly understandable why a business like an airline would just take a blanket “no exceptions” policy than try to sort through the legitimate vs. frivolous requests, and have to deal with shaming in the media when the frivolous ones get denied.

    I actually think speaketh is on to something with the “ticket repurchase” idea as a compromise between “no waivers, no favors” and a free-for-all where everyone with a sob story gets a favor. Some hotels already do something similar to this; if you cancel a room after the refund cut-off, they will occasionally offer to rebate the penalty if the room can be re-sold. Of course, making something like this work in an operation as complex as an airline is another story.

  37. I don’t think airlines should be expected to give someone a break on a airline ticket even if it was for such a time pressing issue. I’m thinking that at a time like that you hand them the plastic and don’t even worry about the price. The airline waived the part of the ticket fee they could. The cost was different for a different flight why should they have to waive that also?

  38. Someone said it was another reason to have travel insurance. “Jim” replied that travel insurance didn’t cover this situation. Why not?? Shouldn’t insurance companies cover this type of “emergency” just as some people think the airlines should???????

  39. Yikes, lots of comments and I haven’t gotten in on the fun yet! I’m going to avoid Jeff’s interactions and address the issue generally.

    I think airlines should sell a bereavement fare that is priced the same as a two week advanced purchase. However, there should be clear rules on what qualifies and ideally this should be monitored and/or implemented by a third party.

    Why should airlines do this when the Florist, Funeral Home, and Hotels shouldn’t? Because their revenue management model causes last minute flights to be multiple times more expensive than one purchased in advance.

    I ran some numbers around 8 pm Pacific Time for a flight from SEA to DFW and a hotels in DFW:
    From: 10/22 To: 10/26
    Airline Ticket: $1012 on AA
    Traveling the next morning: From: 10/23 To: 10/26 Airline Ticket: $669 on US.
    2 star – $28
    3 star – $32
    4 star – $142
    5 star – (blank)

    From: 11/12 To: 11/15
    Airline Ticket: $286 – AA
    2 star – $28
    3 star – $33
    4 star – $104
    5 star – $250

    From: 12/10 To: 12/13
    Airline Ticket: $254 – Frontier
    2 star – $28
    3 star – $33
    4 star – $104
    5 star – $197

    The hotel rooms don’t move significantly, but the airline tickets are three to four times as much money. Don’t get me wrong I understand why the airlines price that way, because business travelers want to have that last seat available..

    In my mind this is a moral, human issue, not a pure business issue. That business person could’ve substituted a phone call, email, planned further in advance or postponed the trip. Very few people schedule when they’re going to die. I get that the airlines are trying to run a business, but this ultimately doesn’t pass the sniff test.

    As for the rules and implementation? Provide clear guidelines:
    A Medical doctor certifies that your relative (Mother, Father, Sibling, Grandparent, etc..) likely has less than seven days to live.
    A Medical doctor, coroner, or licensed funeral director certifies that your relative has died.

    Why third party verification? I think people have a sense that there is an inherent conflict of interest on the airline’s part, and besides I don’t want the airline knowing these details… I’d advocate for the airlines to pay the American Red Cross or some other similar organization a processing fee per application for a fare waiver. I’m sure if the tax accountants get their hands on this they could arrange the difference in the bereavement fare and the walk up fare as a donation. Since the airlines are finally making money, they could use the tax break.

    People don’t like the current process because it isn’t clear, it isn’t transparent, and it doesn’t feel fair.

    1. So what happens when the process is clear, transparent, and (to people with clear eyes) fair, a la B6, WN, and VX (there is no process, for there is no special fare)?

      People can’t like or dislike the current process because there simply isn’t one. Which is a good thing. Where there is a process, it will be gamed.

    2. Nick – So if someone’s parent is going to die in 8 days, then they’re out in the cold? Of course not, because then a doctor will start writing a note saying that it’s less than 7 days. The system will be gamed all the time because that’s human nature.

      1. Brett, lets be honest, most doctors won’t be able able to accurately predict a date of death 7 or 8 days out any reasonable accuracy. You’re putting a bit of a straw man argument in my mouth.

        The crux of my argument, is people want a bereavement discount from airlines because of the steep increase in last minute fares, which makes sense for business travel, but leaves people with a bad taste in their mouth given that they’re in pain, and then they feel they’re being taken advantage of..

        In my mind the processor of these requests would be centralized among many airlines as this’d make fraud easier to find, and lets face it, the airlines aren’t experts at medical conditions..

        1. Nick – I was just using a stupid example to show that people will easily abuse this thing. I mean, you could have a parent who’s gravely ill and you don’t know when they’ll die but you want to get out there. You don’t think a doctor won’t write a note for you? Heck if you want to smoke weed today, it’s not hard to find a doctor to prescribe it for you (at least here in California). People always abuse this stuff.

          And this isn’t just speculation. As someone mentioned above, airlines used to have this policy where a doctor note would open doors for you. It was abused way too much.

          It’s fare easier to just have a set policy and then you can make exceptions as you see fit for customer service reasons. I would imagine that if a United 1K had a problem, she’s going to get treated better than anyone off the street. So there’s a little leeway to deal with it but not from a policy perspective.

          1. Brett, as a CSR supe, I agree it’s a lot easier to have a set policy and make exceptions for CS reasons (regardless of elite status or no). With set policy, I can back any agent up if need be and I’m willing to authorize reasonable exceptions. And really, I’d rather spend the time finding options for the passenger rather than debating policy, or dealing with, as one commenter wrote, a centralized system for verification.

            And your comment about the ease of getting a weed ‘script highlights how easy it is to game the process – any process! Those of us in the industry know well how there are those who abuse policy, resulting in stricter policy, the proverbial bad apples.

  40. I’m curious why Jeff didn’t simply walk to competitor? If he was flying Virgin, it must have been to an airport with lots of competitors, all within walking distance. If Virgin’s business practices are so out of line, surely somebody else can make right for him. (That said I don’t think Virgin is out-of-line, so I don’t think he’ll find happiness elsewhere).

    Infrequent fliers have this distorted view of how airlines work that for some takes a long time to change. There’s the guy that thinks he can get an upgrade by sweet talking the gate agent. There’s the guy that thinks he can sit in any seat because that’s how it works on Southwest. Every once in a while you see one that hasn’t flown in so long, he thinks he’s getting a hot meal in coach. “One way ticket?!?!? Only terrorists buy those!”, no silly… I’m just flying back on a different airline.

    1. Jon, that’s a great question. And my answer, great or not, is that it didn’t occur to me. I presumed that dealing with the company I was already doing business with was as good as it was gonna get.

      In retrospect, could I have done better for two one-way tix than $1,100 by flying Jet Blue one way on short notice? Dunno; if I want them for tonight the price is … surprise! . . . about $1,100.

      This makes me think of the word “collusion”. Let’s be nicer and call it competition instead. But if it’s representative, then the answer to your question, is No, either way.

      And please, let’s remember that this wasn’t about money until it BECAME about money. All I wanted to do was get home a few hours earlier, under stressful conditions. Virgin made that … uglier than it needed to be.

  41. Yablon, you got 200 bucks more than you should have, I\’d be happy with that if I were you. I know it hurts to shell out this kind of money to an airline following the rules that you agreed to when you bought a ticket for 200 something to fly for 12 hours and it hurts your massive ego even more that when you try to bully Branson and other senior executives threatening to go public if they don\’t give you something you\’re not entitled to. (does not make this guy want to follow you as a blogger for sure…) The EXACT same things would have happened if you were ticketed on UA, AA, DL or anyone else, except the change fee on VX is only 100 while the big boys would have charged you 150 a person. Stop digging yourself deeper in a hole, put this behind you and move on. As a friendly advice, it might have been a good idea to use frequent flyer miles (it costs 25K one way LAX to NYC for full fare miles on AA and UA).

  42. I am a frequent traveler and have found myself with emergencies that require last minute travel home.

    In just the past six years, I have had a co-worker who’s home caught fire, I’ve had relatives placed in hospice, and my pregnant wife set to deliver 5 weeks early. These last minute distances have varied from simple flights that I could drive in a pinch to international emergencies. Flexibility from airline personnel who have to look you in the eye has been wonderful, from jumping the standby list to not charging the change fee, these are best done at the airport in my experience. I’ve been accommodated for no fee on early travel at the airport, the exception has been flying a different carrier to accomplish the travel where I enjoyed a $1200 last minute one way fare – but it was worth being there for my new (early) baby. If that flight hadn’t cleared, I would have considered flying cargo – I just absolutely had to be there.

  43. Here’s an interesting addendum to the firestorm I created over my issues with Virgin America Customer Service (

    I’m in Miami for a few days. I happened to fly JetBlue this time around. I’ll be returning to New York on Monday, and as seems to be the standard in my life lately found myself earlier today needing to tweak my travel plans.

    I called JetBlue and asked what was involved in moving my flight up by a few hours. The choices were either pay $100 per person plus difference in fare, similar to the story I got from Virgin America, or WAIT UNTIL 12:01 AM ON MONDAY AND CHANGE FOR $50, period.

    This underscores a couple of things that I believe prove the point I was making about Virgin America.

    First, by allowing changes last-minute (inventory available, of course) for LESS money, JetBlue is acknowledging that to pretend there’s a “difference in class” is in fact just pretending. A seat is a seat unless you actually buy some sort of upgrade and they have no reason to pretend otherwise, so by letting allowing you some flexibility and charging the $50 just to cover administrative costs they are practicing great customer service.

    But there’s more.

    It turned out that my seats, purchased from JetBlue 29 days before traveling, actually cost $1 less today, three days pre-travel, than they did then. I had to pay the $100 per seat change fee and did so willingly. And smiled just a tiny bit when it was reduced to $99.

    Just sayin’

    1. Jeff – What JetBlue did is the same as what every other airline does, including Virgin America. This isn’t some stroke of customer service genius but rather just part of a policy that every airline has. If you want to change your flights to earlier or later options the same day without changing the airports involved, you can do that on anyone except for…. customer service darling Southwest. Southwest will charge you the difference in fare no matter what.

      You can see Virgin’s policy:

      It’s quite funny to hear people praise this, because it used to be that you could standby for an earlier or later flight for free. The airlines did away with that and now require that you pay, though they will confirm the seat if available.

      1. I get the feeling you’ve forgotten the premise of my original post.

        When I needed, due to a bona fide emergency, to do a same-day flight change on V.A., they charged me $1100; $200 fees plus fare difference.

        JB, on the other hand, charges ONLY the change fee, AND A REDUCED ONE AT THAT, for same-day (most likely to be an emergency) changes.

        Is that about customer service or business realities as I have pointed out (a seat is a seat). I don’t know, and I don’t care. I only care that JB is human in a way that V.A. clearly is not.

        1. Jeff – Actually, I think you’ve forgotten the premise of your original post. You were changing from a Friday flight to a Thursday night flight. That’s a change of day, and JetBlue would have done the exact same thing as Virgin America. You are simply the beneficiary of an existing policy that applied in this case and not the original one. That has nothing to do with superior customer service.

          1. Hmmm. Maybe.

            My first thought was to do a complete me culpa; you’re right, in October I needed to move my flight up to 11:45 PM the night BEFORE the original booking. But then it occurred to me that “same day change” might mean “I’m changing to a flight TODAY”, which was what was going on, last time and would give any airline following JB’s policy a reasonable way to be human.

            I then dug around on the JB website to see if there was an answer, and the wording is unclear, although it tends to support your position.

            I THEN looked up VA’s policy for same-day changes and they are certainly better than what happened in October, BUT they specifically state that the ability to make that change only applies AT the airport in stand-by status, which is certainly not what JB did for me this time; I made the change over the phone three days ahead of time and it’s a confirmed, reserved change, not a stand-by.

            Oh, and while this is completely anecdotal, the fact that the fare was essentially the same (actually $1 cheaper) now as it was a month ago suggests something else about all airlines not doing things the same way.

            I’ll yield on the technicality, because I think you’re probably “correct”. But overall it still looks/feels like JB is a lot more human. And that was all my original point was ever about.

          2. Jeff – My point is very simple. JetBlue did not provide amazing customer service. The agent was just following policy. In fact, Virgin America provided you with better customer service by waiving the change fee, even though the fare difference was not waived.

            These policies are all very clear. You can change your flight to an earlier or later one on the same day of original travel (as long as you aren’t trying to change your origin and destination) for a flat fee if there are seats available. That applied to your JetBlue flight and it didn’t apply to your Virgin America flight.

            I’m not sure how the wording on JetBlue’s website is unclear. It seems incredibly clear to me:
            *You must contact JetBlue prior to the departure of your original flight
            *You can make your confirmed same day changes via 1-800-JETBLUE (538-2583) or at the airport beginning at midnight (in the time zone of the departing flight) of the same calendar day as your original scheduled flight.
            *You must travel on an earlier or later flight the same-day.
            *You must travel between the same city pairs or designated co-located airport.
            *A Same-Day Change Fee of $50 per person will be applied for your confirmed seat.

            What isn’t clear about that?

            Also, you are saying that you made the change on JetBlue 3 days in advance, but that completely contradicts what you said in your first post about this. In your original post above you stated that you could do it for a flat $50 if you waited until Monday, the day you were going to travel. And by the way, by waiting until Monday, you were always risking the possibility that the flight would be sold out.

            Your assumption about fares is incorrect as well. The reality is that your Virgin America flight was likely very full and that’s why the fare was so much higher. Your JetBlue flight probably was not. Fares vary all the time for a variety of reasons. There isn’t anything inherently different about how JetBlue operates versus how Virgin America operates.

            I suppose the only exception is that JetBlue will allow same day confirmed to be done online or over the phone whereas Virgin America doesn’t allow that. That makes JetBlue a bit friendlier, but I don’t see how it makes the airline more human in any way.

  44. I think the price of tickets these days are high enough that you should not get stuck with extra charges when you have an emergency situation. Most people in an emergency situation are stressed enough without having to worry about shelling out more money for a plane ticket.

    I think the airlines should take a course in “Customer First”. That has been forgotten.

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