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 or 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.
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.