My phone rang on a recent Saturday afternoon. An old friend was in a panic. Her 41-year-old cousin, who was apparently in good health, had collapsed and died of a heart attack.
The man's wife and daughter wished to fly with the body for burial near his family home in New Jersey. They had called United Airlines and, explaining the circumstances, asking for the lowest fare to Newark from Los Angeles.
Could the airline waive its advance-purchase fare, they asked?
The reservations agent told the widow that the lowest possible price she could quote her was $1,176, the full coach round-trip fare.
The United agent stated that since the airline had no published bereavement fare, the lowest quote for a coach ticket was, in fact, the highest possible coach fare.
I called the reservations agent for her and she repeated the same information to me.
"Clearly," I said, "you must have some policy on these situations."
"No," she replied, "we have no published fare and she doesn't qualify for an advance-purchase ticket."
I asked supervisor Stephanie O'Neill the same questions. She repeated North's position.
"Besides," she added, "there are no discount fares available for the flights to Newark."
"But are there seats available for that flight?" I asked.
"Yes," she said. "But not at that fare."
"If there are seats available for the flight," I replied, "then surely someone in your office has the authority to override the computer and sell these folks a cheaper seat."
It took another 10 minutes before I convinced her that she could, in fact, override her computer, waive the advance-purchase restrictions and give the two family members a reasonable fare. I told her that the family would not only provide a copy of the death certificate, but that the mortuary had informed me the body would also be accompanying them on the same flight (in the cargo hold).
Finally, she relented. The $1,176 per-person fare was dropped to $418.
But what do others do if a loved one dies and they must fly to be with their family?
It is a tough problem. Many airlines are trying--some more successfully than others--to deal with the delicate subject of what to charge people if they must fly due to an emergency.
"It is true," said United spokesman Rob Doughty "that we do not have a published bereavement fare. We deal with these requests on a case-by-case basis, usually waiving advance-purchase requirements. If a passenger requires this kind of assistance, he or she should call our reservations number and ask to speak to a supervisor in order to get more personalized service."
That "personalized" service did not occur with my friends. I have received a number of complaint letters from passengers similarly treated by other airlines.
Stilll, the airlines are not always to blame.
"We had a real problem on the West Coast," said Lorene Suber, Northwest's manager of reservations in Los Angeles. "We felt that a number of our passengers were using phony family member 'deaths' as an excuse to get a cheap flight, so we went to headquarters to ask them to come up with a corporate response."
Northwest did. The airline now has a bereavement assistance policy. In the case of a death of an immediate family member (son, daughter, father, mother, grandmother or grandfather, but no aunts, uncles or cousins), Northwest "may offer a travel credit for bereaved passengers who are unable to comply with restrictions of lower discount fares."
The airline does not offer discounted travel immediately. Family members fly at a full "Y" (coach) or "Y9" fare (slightly discounted coach). Upon completion of their trip, they send a notarized photocopy of the death certificate, and the original passenger coupon from the flights they took to Northwest's refund department.
The airline will review the case and "may" then issue a special travel voucher, worth 50% of the cost of the original ticket, to be exchanged for future travel on Northwest on any fare.
The Northwest deal is not that great. Assuming the airline approves the voucher, passengers are only getting half off a full coach fare. And no cash comes back to you. In order to benefit from the deal, you have to fly Northwest again.
Still, it's better than no deal at all. There are, however, some airlines that make true bereavement fares more of a stated policy. USAir is one of them. Continental also offers discounted fares to immediate family members traveling to funerals. TWA offers a 33% discount off the cost of the ticket (like Northwest, it's in the form of a voucher good for future travel on TWA).
Air Canada was one of the first airlines to go public with a "compassionate travel" policy. It was introduced nearly two years ago, and provides an actual refund of 40% of a full-fare round-trip ticket. One small problem: If you live in the United States and your family member dies in Canada, you may be out of luck. Travel must originate in Canada.
Pan Am, American, Delta and Eastern are, like United, dealing with bereavement cases on an individual basis.
"We have no official bereavement fare," said Lois Gallo, Midway Airlines' vice president of passenger service. "But we do have a specific and compassionate policy. It just gets down to engendering good faith. If someone says their relative died, we believe them. We really don't think our customers would resort to a scam like this to rip us off.
"Obviously, if someone calls up and says their grandmother died and the funeral will be on Dec. 25 in St. Thomas, we would ask a few more questions."
Often, determination of the fare rests with the street-level discretion of individual reservations or ticket counter agents. If handled properly, it can do wonders for an airline's public relations.
Recently, an advertising executive from San Francisco who was visiting Hawaii approached the American Airlines ticket counter at the Honolulu airport. He had flown from San Francisco to Honolulu and was scheduled to fly back to San Francisco on a discounted and highly restricted ticket.
"I was wondering," he asked the American agent, "if I could change my return flight to Los Angeles instead."
The agent told him that she could, in fact, change his ticket, but that the difference in fares would be substantial. "I could waive the additional fare," she then advised him, "if there is a hardship involved."
"I don't think so," the executive said with a shrug. "It's just that my daughter called me last night and asked if I could come to her 18th birthday party and she lives in Los Angeles."
"That's the reason?" the agent asked.
"Afraid so," he said, resignedly.
The agent quickly scanned seat availability for the Los Angeles flight. There were plenty of empty seats. She looked up from her computer screen, smiled and winked. "That's a hardship," she said, as she rewrote his ticket at no additional charge. "Have a nice flight."