During the political riots> in Cairo last month, one airline waived change fees on travel to the city for two months. When swine flu broke out in Mexico last year, most carriers gave travelers up to a year to rebook. And hours after an earthquake and tsunami ravaged Japan, the airlines once again announced what travelers would -- and would not -- be entitled to. And this time, travelers will once again have different options than in previous disasters.
In the event of a natural disaster, travel experts say, there are few rules or regulations about what airlines must do. This time, most carriers are waiving ticket change fees and offering the chance to rebook, but for now only for those who delay their trips by a week or two. For their part, the airlines say they're going above and beyond what federal regulations require them to do. "While the policies tend to be fairly standardized, how and when and how long you apply them should be variable," says Ed Martelle, a spokesman for American Airlines (AMR)
Department of Transportation regulations require every airline to offer passengers a refund for a cancelled flight, but analysts say that's costly to carriers. Early 2011 snowstorms cost U.S. airlines more than $320 million in lost revenue from more than 54,000 cancelled flights, says Basili Alukos, an equity analyst for Morningstar. Airlines lose far less if customers simply choose to rebook. So many also offer fee waivers that, they hope, are generous enough to entice travelers to hang on to their tickets.
When a situation is unfolding, airlines' policies can change quickly. Three days after their first announcements, American and Delta had extended their initial offers to more travelers. As of Monday, American said it will waive ticket change fees for travelers flying to, from or through Tokyo through April 10, giving them the option to begin travel as late as May 10. Travelers on United (UAL)
Why does one disaster merit different treatment for travelers than another? It depends on the routes and flights affected, and whether an airline has a hub in the area. "As they cancel flights, it has a ripple effect," Alukos says. For travelers affected by the disaster in Japan, Delta fliers have more leeway than Continental and United passengers, who have more flexibility than American customers. During the Mexican swine flu outbreak, American passengers were offered one of the more generous opportunities the chance to change their tickets once, without a fee, for travel within a year while U.S. Airways travelers could only move their trip up or back by seven days to avoid any fees. U.S. Airways did not respond to requests for comment. But critics say policies should be more uniform. "It's arbitrary," says Kate Hanni, founder of FlyersRights.org.
To be sure, airlines are responding after disasters faster than they used to, says Tom Parsons, the chief executive of travel site BestFares.com. Even few years ago, airlines were hesitant to cancel flights even during a snowstorm. The turning point: the snowstorms of Valentine's Day 2007, when JetBlue (JBLU)
But even for travelers on an airline with a flexible or generous policy, the logistics may not pan out. During heavy travel times like spring or winter breaks there may not be enough seats available to rebook within the airline's parameters. And Hanni notes that after some past disasters, consumers have reported airlines' waivers didn't extend to all parts of their itinerary. The result: a traveler booked from New York to Tokyo via San Francisco might have a hard time getting a refund for the New York-to-San Francisco portion of the trip.
Because the airlines offer varied coverage, Hanni recommends travelers compare airlines' past behavior if they're planning travel during, say, hurricane season. "It makes an excellent case for travel insurance," she says. That said, insurance policies may also vary on how far in advance you can cancel, says Damian Tysdal, the founder of comparison site TravelInsuranceReview.net. Insurers may or may not see the State Department's warning about aftershocks and recommendation to avoid non-essential travel as reason enough to cancel a trip for late March or early April. "Travel warnings and alerts are tough because you really need something to happen for insurance to kick in," he says. "It's a grey area."
Consumers who purchased travel insurance for a trip to or through Japan should call their insurer to confirm they're covered, Tysdale says. "In general, for trip cancellation plans, natural disasters are covered," he says. But policyholders should be aware that some plans won't cover very last-minute cancellations (if, for example, you were leaving this week) or if travel would bring you to areas in Japan relatively unaffected by the earthquake and tsunami.