Bereavement fares may offer little comfort
Death may be one of life’s only certainties. But that doesn’t make it any easier for consumers dazed with worry or grief to plan last-minute air travel for family funerals and end-of-life care.
In an era of rampant discounts and fees, passengers face a bewildering array of options as they race to join loved ones.
A decade ago, bereavement fares were commonly structured as discounts from the prohibitive “walk-up” fares intended for business travelers with expense accounts.
But today every airline seems to have its own way of dealing with family emergencies. Some have done away with bereavement fares; others offer hard-to-compare prices that may prove more expensive than bargain-basement tickets available through online travel agencies such as Kayak.com, experts say.
Airlines including American and Delta offer traditional bereavement fares. United and Continental provide flat discounts off any fares found by distressed consumers. Southwest and US Airways don’t offer any such deals, contending they’re not needed because discounted fares are widely available.
“For someone who has lost a family member, it is much more hassle, honestly, than it’s worth,” said Peter Carideo, president of Chicago-based CRC Travel.
Watch out for fees
Nor should customers assume that airlines offering discounted fares for family emergencies will show similar compassion when it comes to waiving fees.
Brian Matakis learned that lesson last month when American declined to waive the fees he incurred as he raced from Chicago to Austin, Texas, to see his dying father. He had assumed he would get a refund as an elite business customer.
Matakis spent $210 to redeem frequent-flier miles for last-minute flights for his wife and himself. He also canceled a trip to Minneapolis when he learned his father’s health was failing and faced a $150 fee to change his travel plans, more than the $136 he had paid for the ticket.
Matakis, who flies more than 50,000 miles a year on the Texas-based carrier, said e-mail responses to his requests seemed “canned.” “It’s shaken my opinion of American,” he said.
Matakis never requested a bereavement fare; his fees resulted from his changed itinerary. So the airline wasn’t obligated to refund them, American spokesman Tim Smith said.
“Mr. Matakis received a very, very low fare for his original travel -- well below our cost to provide the service, in fact,” Smith said.
“When purchasing these fares, in exchange for the extremely low price, the customer accepts the risk that they may lose the value of the ticket should their plans change. If we did not have such stipulations, we would not be able to offer these low fares.”
Dealing with passenger crises is costly and tricky for carriers, analysts said. Planes are fuller now, making it tougher to find seats, particularly during busy travel periods.
Airlines also must collect and process the paperwork documenting the crisis, attempt to distinguish needy clients from hucksters, all while risking alienating their loyal passengers.
“It really is a nightmare for both sides,” said Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com. “In most cases, airlines would like to accommodate you at cheaper prices if they could, because they would have a customer for life.”
American offers greater flexibility for passengers who purchase bereavement fares. They can change plans without penalty and can keep the return date open.
The cost of such travel varies based on where a passenger lives and the degree of airline competition in destination cities.
Chicago passengers, for example, have benefited from a 25% plunge in last-minute fares over the last year, a side effect of the recession and Southwest’s expansion into such cities as Boston, New York and Minneapolis, according to Harrell Associates, a New York-based travel and aviation consulting firm.
American’s average walk-up round-trip fare between Chicago and Boston has tumbled by nearly $1,000, or 63%, to $554, since last year. A similar fare on Northwest, which is owned by Delta, between Chicago and Minneapolis costs $316, down 73%, according to Harrell Associates.
Even so, walk-up fares are no bargain on most routes, especially where discounters don’t have a significant presence.
The highest-priced transcontinental route, Philadelphia to San Francisco, is $2,554 round trip on US Airways. And that’s in economy class.
“People think that because they’re getting a compassion fare, they’re getting a good deal,” said Bob Harrell, president of Harrell Associates. “What they’re getting is a modest deal off of a sky-high fare. That’s why they suffer so much sticker shock, especially if two to three family members are traveling.”
Carriers’ front-line staff can intervene on passengers’ behalf in special circumstances, said aviation consultant Robert Mann.
Matakis learned that as well. On Nov. 10, the morning after his father’s funeral, he vented his frustrations to an American customer agent at an Admiral’s Club in Austin. Without saying a word, she refunded the cost of his Minneapolis ticket on the spot.
“It’s a tale of two companies,” Matakis said. “Face to face, they did the right thing. But it seems like airlines are turning to a deliberately distanced system that relies on call centers and websites to deal with customers.”