Fair's fare: how compassionate are our airlines?

Whether you are Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish or atheist, summer was the time to be with family.

Thousands of people around the globe packed the car, hopped on trains or boarded planes to see loved ones.

But unfortunately, travel is not always planned and it is not always undertaken for celebratory reasons.

Receiving news of an ill relative or the passing of a loved one is devastating enough, but the situation can become more difficult if you live in another state or country and need to arrange last minute travel to attend a funeral or bedside vigil.

To make these difficult times a little easier, most airlines have a compassionate policy in place to support people in times of bereavement - although many will require evidence and details to verify your desperate situation.

Dealing with passenger crises is costly and tricky for carriers.

According to a spokesperson for travel agent Flight Centre, there used to be published air tariff rulings from most airlines, providing a discount for bereavement travel.

However, with the advent of budget airlines and low cost flights that have made air travel more affordable, would-be travellers are now better off booking the cheapest flight available in the market place at the time of travel.

There are variations in the policies offered by different airlines, with some continuing to offer a bereavement fare and others offering more flexibility regarding return dates.

Qantas provides a compassionate fare for immediate family to travel within Australia, in times of bereavement or life threatening illness.


On Jetstar Airways, customers are not offered compassionate fares, but a spokeswoman for Jetstar says a compassionate policy is available for people who want to change their travel plans if they have had a death in the family.

Virgin Blue doesn't offer compassionate fares either but a spokeswoman says the airline does take special circumstances into consideration, if passengers need to change flights for bereavement reasons.

"Rather than have special fares for particular groups, our strategy is to keep fares as low as possible for everyone," the spokeswoman says.

Nor are compassionate fares offered at the highly-regarded Middle Eastern airline Emirates, although the airline offers a range of policies to assist customers dealing with the death or illness of a family member.

The airline will waive date change fees for those passengers that have already made a booking but need to make a change, or need to change their return bookings.

Emirates will also offer a refund on airfares if the passenger can no longer travel, as long as a medical certificate is provided.

In the United States, carriers like American Airlines and Delta Airlines offer traditional bereavement fares. United Airlines and Continental Airlines provide flat discounts off any fares found by distressed consumers.

Southwest Airlines and US Airways don't offer any such deals, contending that 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 Lincoln Park, Illonis-based CRC Travel.

And customers shouldn't assume that airlines offering discounted fares for family emergencies will show similar compassion when it comes to waiving fees for last-minute trips.

Dealing with passenger crises is costly and tricky for carriers, analysts said. Planes are fuller, making it tougher to find seats, particularly during busy travel periods.

Airlines also must collect and process paperwork documenting the crisis, attempt to distinguish needy clients from hucksters, all while risking alienating 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 Airlines offers greater flexibility on travel for passengers who purchase bereavement fares. They can change plans without penalty and even can keep the return date open.

Back home, for those who live within driving distance of their destination, think carefully before deciding whether or not to drive.

The bad news will no doubt be playing on your mind, taking your focus off the road.

You may want to consider asking a friend to drive you, hopping on public transport or hiring a driver.

Some tips for travelling in a time of crisis:

Use your and family members' frequent-flier points if possible.

Perhaps buy a one-way ticket until you know what you are doing.

Look into deals that combine airfare with hotels and rental cars. They typically include lower-price airfares, and consumers can always cancel portions they don't need - like hotel rooms.

If the above don't work, pour your heart out to a customer service representative in person.


Qantas: call 13-13-13.

Jetstar: call 13-15-38.

Virgin Blue: call 13-67-89.

Emirates: call 1300-303-777.

Flight Centre: call 133-133.


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