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CONSUMERS : Shopping for Emergency Air Fares

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Times Staff Writer

Since 1978, when domestic airlines were deregulated, wise consumers have learned to shop around for savings on airfares. But--something most travelers don’t know--if you had a sudden medical emergency or death in the family, would the airline consider waiving a fare restriction for you?

Some will, some won’t.

An informal survey of major carriers reveals that those who will waive restrictions in an emergency situation--so you can get a cheaper ticket--do so on an individual basis. And the emergency must pertain to the immediate family: father, mother, son, daughter, husband or wife.

For example, a Los Angeles woman recently needed to fly to the Midwest for her mother’s funeral, and couldn’t wait seven days in order to get a discount ticket. The regular fare was $998; the economy one, $418.

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A reservations supervisor agreed to waive the seven-day restriction and give the passenger the discounted rate. The airline ticket agent verified the death by checking with the funeral home in Ohio.

“We don’t have a blanket policy on emergency fares or a death emergency, but a reservations supervisor can authorize the waiving of restrictions,” said Sara Dornacker, media relations manager for United Airlines in Chicago. “Depending on the circumstances, exceptions can be made on a case-by-case basis. But it has to be a management decision.”

Dornacker said that if the airline ticket agent does not inquire about the reason for the passenger’s emergency, the passenger should tell the agent and have him or her check with a supervisor to see if fare restrictions might be waived.

“If people have verification that they do have a medical emergency, or death in their family, then we will go ahead and accommodate them if we can,” said American’s Al Becker, managing director of external communications in Dallas. “We try to be as flexible as we can.”

American also offers passengers a 40% discount on a normal coach fare if they are traveling with human remains; United offers a discounted fare in that situation, too. Called a YRHR fare, it varies depending on where you are flying.

All airlines who will waive fare restrictions insist on verification of the emergency, just as they do if you have one of their non-refundable tickets and cannot use it because of illness or a death in your family. In that case, they require a letter from a doctor stating your illness, or a copy of your relative’s death certificate or a newspaper obituary notice.

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Airlines spokesmen note that some people have tried to get lower rate fares by lying about a death in their family.

“But the vast majority of people are honest and reputable and want to do the right thing, so we try to accommodate them,” American’s Becker said.

If a person traveling on a death emergency has his or her initial flight canceled, both United and American will give that passenger priority standing on another flight.

“They just have to let the customer service representative know they’re traveling on a death emergency,” United’s Dornacker said. “We do the same for unaccompanied minors and disabled people.”

TWA’s Don Morrison in St. Louis said: “We have no general policy as far as waiving restrictions. That would be a difficult policy to manage and to administrate. But from time to time, it does occur on a case-by-case basis.

‘We Help Out’

“We have had situations in the past where we’ve helped with the transportation for a patient who needs a kidney transplant or bone marrow transplant and the family is drained of their normal funds. Often a community group assists in raising money. And we help out.”

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Alaska Airlines, on the other hand, waives no fare restrictions for any unticketed passengers.

“If you’re unticketed, there is nothing that is available from the airline in an emergency situation,” said Tim Orkins, director of consumer affairs for Alaska Airlines in Seattle. “Probably 5% of anyone traveling does so on an unforeseen need of a personal nature. And that kind of program would be impossible to administer. The airline would have to determine an individual’s financial need and we wouldn’t have the time on such short notification.”

However, in the reverse situation--if you have a non-refundable, discounted ticket and can’t take the flight because of a medical emergency to yourself, traveling companion or immediate family, or a death in your immediate family--Alaska Airlines will refund your money if you provide documentation of the illness or death.

Alternative Assistance

And although Alaska Airlines does not waive fare restrictions for passengers without tickets, it does, Orkins said, “make contributions--cash, free transportation, waivers of restricted fares--through various charitable or nonprofit organizations.

“That way the different groups can do the screening (of passengers who need assistance with fares),” Orkins added.

Among the groups to which Alaska Airlines contributes are Ronald McDonald House, Air Lifeline and Travelers Aid.

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Travelers Aid, which has offices at major airports and assists travelers in dire need, does not assist travelers in negotiating with airlines for fare reductions or in getting money in case of a family death emergency, according to Susan Edelstein of the Los Angeles International Airport office.

In the case of overseas air carriers and the waiving of fare restrictions in medical or death emergencies, the rules cannot be bent so easily, according to Joe Zucker, public relations manager for Lufthansa in the Western U. S. region.

Easing of Restrictions Seen

“It’s completely different than in the U.S. We’re not deregulated and the rules are still pretty strict,” Zucker explained. He added, however, that increasing “liberalization” in the Common Market area of Europe should result in some easing of airline restrictions by as early as 1992.

But for now Zucker said that most international carriers are owned by their governments, and follow “the common safety standards, fare restrictions, rules and regulations of the IATA, International Air Transport Assn,” which Zucker called “the U.N. of the airline business.”

However, Lufthansa might do some waiving of restrictions if a passenger who already has a ticket has a medical or death emergency, Zucker said.

“If a person was here and had a death in the family . . . they might waive the restrictions without a penalty,” he said.

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“In such a terrific emergency, we might work with the passenger’s travel agent and make some agreement,” Zucker continued. “We have agents appointed to represent us. If the travel agent knows a passenger, in some cases we might work with the agent as an intermediary. But we’re not likely to do something for a stranger just coming in off the street.”

Contact Travel Agent

If you have a medical or death emergency and are flying Pan American either domestically or internationally, Pan Am’s Klaus Hofmeister also suggests that you contact a travel agent and let him or her try to make arrangements for you.

“There are so many rules and so many fares, we suggest they go through the travel agent,” said Hofmeister, assistant manager of sales for Pan Am in Los Angeles. “If it’s a bona-fide death emergency, we try to deal with it. The same applies to non-refundables in the case of illness or death. We want a doctor’s letter or documentation. What’s usually involved in these situations is ticketing time limits, how long they are and the reason they need to be waived.”

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