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Too sick to fly: Should airlines offer refunds to infectious passengers?

Can you be too sick to fly? In light of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s a question consumer advocates are raising with new urgency. They’re fighting for regulations that would require airlines to offer full refunds to sick passengers.

Airline policies are unfairly rigid when it comes to infectious diseases. Unless you bought a fully refundable ticket, carriers will charge a change fee and any applicable fare differential if you decide that you’re too sick to fly. And if you bought a “basic” economy ticket and can’t fly, you’re out of luck – and out the cost of the ticket.

While airlines have loosened their refund policies during the pandemic, there’s every indication that they are about to return to their former policies, including their rules on infectious diseases. Critics say these policies encourage contagious people to fly and could contribute to another outbreak.

“Airlines must change their policies,” said Los Angeles-based physician Carole Lieberman, who has conducted epidemiology research at UCLA. “They need to do more to make sure infectious people don’t fly – and without the passenger suffering any penalty.”

Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, has been lobbying for laws that would compel airlines to issue full refunds during a pandemic. But Bill McGee, a consumer advocate with the magazine, fears that airlines may quickly return to their old ways after the pandemic. “It’s clear the airlines are being obstinate about refunds, despite the taxpayer bailout,” he says.

It’s an issue that’s important to such advocates as Travelers United’s president, Charles Leocha. Before the pandemic, he found himself with a severe case of double pneumonia in Madrid. He contacted Delta Air Lines and said he might be contagious. A representative said he could reschedule his flight but would have to pay a change fee and a fare difference, which would amount to more than he originally paid.

“It was basically ‘use it or lose it,’” he said. Leocha reluctantly boarded the flight.

“No one should have to make that choice,” he said.

His nonprofit advocacy organization is fighting for better refund rules. But it hasn’t been easy. Leocha said there’s little agreement about which agency is responsible for creating and enforcing a policy allowing sick passengers to change a flight. It falls into a regulatory twilight zone.

This issue emerges every flu season, as thousands of air travelers have to make a difficult choice: continue with the trip and possibly infect people around them or lose the value of the airline ticket.

“Travelers do not like to lose their hard-earned money for something that is not in their control,” said Lowell Valencia-Miller, an assistant professor at the University of Denver’s business school.

Dean Headley, a professor emeritus at Wichita State University and co-author of the Airline Quality Rating, said airlines don’t want to endanger other passengers by allowing potentially infectious people to travel. But they’d rather make the decision about boarding those passengers themselves.

“Almost all service providers reserve the right to refuse service at their discretion,” Headley said. “Refusing to board a traveler who may have verifiable symptoms may be part of our new traveling reality. Who determines what these verifiable symptoms are and how they are monitored is open for debate.”

So what can you expect to happen if you have an infectious disease and plans to fly somewhere? In the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, experts say airlines are likely to be lenient about making refunds to contagious people, even if they don’t have a doctor’s note. But over time, the old “use it or lose it” policies will probably return for customers too sick to fly.

Airlines generally have similar policies for handling contagious passengers. Those who can document their severe illness with a doctor’s note may qualify for a refund. And American Airlines, for one, notes that when it comes to refunding nonrefundable tickets, “some extenuating exceptions may be considered due to critical illness of customer.”

Some other airlines don’t address contagious illness in their published policies, leaving it to their gate agents to decide whether someone is too sick to fly. But, ultimately, deciding whether to travel may be your decision.

Michael McCall, a professor at Michigan State University’s School of Hospitality Business, said airlines will need to consider carefully their refund policies after the pandemic. He said there’s some consensus among passengers that airlines should offer at least a credit, if not a refund, when they’re too sick to fly. But the details are important. If an airline offers credit, and you have to pay change fees and fare differentials that negate the credit, then is it really a credit?

“This is new ground, and everyone is trying to find their way,” McCall said.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at chris@elliott.org.