Question: My round-trip flight to Italy in December is booked on Aeroflot with 15-hour layovers, coming and going, in the Moscow airport. After the Malaysian flight was downed, I did some research to see what my options might be. Will Aeroflot give me a refund if there's a threat of terrorism or war?
Answer: The worried Aalmann has plenty of company. In a survey late last month, TheStreet found that 36% of respondents were afraid to fly internationally; more women expressed fear than men, and those who were more worried tended to be older than 65. (Aalmann fits two of those categories, but she's definitely not older than 65.)
So, yes, there's fear out there, but what can you do if you're already holding a ticket?
Precious little, unless it's a refundable ticket, which this one, like the vast majority of tickets, is not.
In recent months, we've seen airlines that will not waive change fees, much less refund, tickets to areas affected by chikungunya, a nonfatal illness that is dreadfully painful. One reader wrote that he didn't want to risk exposing his family to the virus by taking the vacation he'd booked to an area of the Caribbean where there were outbreaks. The airline said, essentially, "Tough."
On the other hand, we've also seen airlines that are proactive in the face of trouble. Before the Federal Aviation Administration stepped in, Delta suspended flights to Tel Aviv recently after a rocket struck near Ben Gurion Airport.
Delta also has waived change fees for flights to areas affected by the deadly Ebola virus. And late last week, United was letting passengers who might be affected by Tropical Storm Bertha change their tickets without a fee and without having to pay more if the fare was more expensive for the new travel date.
The key here is that the actions were taken by the airlines, not because a consumer demanded it. The best you can do is plead your case. (Aalmann did, with no change.)
Is it likely that Aeroflot (or any airline) will let you change your ticket with no financial penalty because you're nervous? No. Airlines act based on what will happen, not what might. And in Aeroflot's case, that refund may be a degree or two more unlikely: The carrier's first-half financial results were as dismal as a winter in Siberia: Its income, according to Air Transport World magazine, was down 36%, or about $96 million.
This may explain why Aeroflot has come up with some amazingly low fares in the last few months. Most involve a layover in Moscow, but if you can navigate that, you'll find that a ticket to, say, Madrid for Sept. 17-24 (dates chosen at random) was showing up as $932 on Aeroflot. The best fare I found for any airline that didn't have a layover in Moscow and wasn't purchased through a consolidator? $1,272. (These fares may no longer be available.)
Besides financial obstacles, Aeroflot has some baggage from its days as the only airline in the Soviet Union, when its fleet was home-grown and service could charitably be called less than stellar. So it is, said George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, underselling most major carriers except Norwegian, a new player in L.A. (and, after stranding passengers last month at LAX, in the airline doghouse with many of those fliers).
But I will give Aeroflot credit for this: Its contract of carriage, which sometimes reads as though it were written by a C-plus student in an English as a Foreign Language class, is clear about what a budget passenger can expect: A fare refund for that class of ticket is "not authorized."
Contracts of carriage, or terms and conditions, as they're sometimes called, are almost always worth reading, even if they are stultifying. (In Aeroflot's, you'll also learn that "medium or strong" intoxication or "extremely low/high blood pressure" may make a party subject to a medical examination. Apparently, one should not drink too much, go into a rage or stay in a Zen-like state.)
Knowing what you're dealing with and whom you're dealing with is the price you pay for the price you pay, especially when there are travel agents who will book tickets. Or, as Pliny the Elder, a Roman scholar, said: "A bad bargain is always a ground for repentance."
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