Airfares a maze in times of distress
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By Julie Johnsson
CHICAGO — 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 altogether; others offer hard-to-compare prices that may prove more expensive than bargain-basement tickets available through online travel agencies like Kayak.com, experts said.
Carriers like American Airlines and Delta Air Lines 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, Ill.,-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.
Brian Matakis learned this lesson last month when American Airlines declined to waive 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 to Austin 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 paid for the ticket.
Matakis, who flies more than 50,000 miles per year on the Texas 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 American wasn't obligated to refund them, company 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, 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 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.
The cost of such travel varies based on where passengers live and the degree of airline competition in destination cities. Chicago passengers, for example, have benefited from a 25 percent plunge in last-minute fares over the past year, a positive 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 fare to Boston, round trip, has tumbled by nearly $1,000, or 63 percent, to $554 versus 2008 prices. A similar round-trip fare on Northwest, which is owned by Delta, to Minneapolis costs $316, down $868, or 73 percent, 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, tops out at $2,554, round trip on US Airways. And that's for a seat 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 Web sites to deal with customers."
TRAVELING IN A TIME OF CRISIS
If consumers have the time and patience during a time of crisis, they can find ways to reduce travel costs. Some tips:
—Use frequent-flier miles, even if it means absorbing last-minute redemption fees.
—Use family members' frequent-flier miles.
—Buy a one-way ticket.
—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.
SOURCE: Tribune reporting
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