'Compassion fares' for emergency travel get scarce

Airlines that still offer them often make passengers jump through hoops to qualify. And the discount can be meager.

By Bruce Kennedy Aug 8, 2013 1:08PM

Man pulling suitcase in airport (© Keith Brofsky/UpperCut Images/Getty Images)Are the airlines at all compassionate when it comes to so-called compassion fares? There was a time when carriers offered something called emergency, bereavement or compassion fares for customers in crisis -- people traveling at the last minute to see a very sick or dying relative, or to be with family members after the death of a loved one.

As the website The Plane Rules notes, "while the airlines are not a social service agency, they provided this as a humane service."

But it appears that humane connection with the public is going the way of the biplane. As the airlines come out of the recession and consolidate their business, they say it no longer makes good business sense for them to offer compassion fares. Or, when they do, they'll make you jump through hoops to get them.

Bereavement fares reflected a different era for the industry, says Maclyn Clouse, a professor of finance at the University of Denver's Daniel's College of Business -- a time when flights weren't regularly filled to capacity. "If you've got an empty seat that can be given to someone on a bereavement basis for a 10% discount, (the airlines are) still getting 90% instead of an empty seat," he told MSN Money.

But given the overall reduction in flights and the growing number of would-be passengers turned away from overbooked flights, Clouse says, "there's not an inventory of unfilled seats that they can be compassionate with."

Most airlines either no longer have compassion fares or make their requirements very hazy. "While fares offered under the Bereavement policy vary in price," Delta's (DAL) website says, "the additional flexibility may be beneficial to accommodate unexpected changes in your travel plans."

United (UAL) is one of the few carriers to have a straightforward bereavement policy: a 5% discount on fares, one way or round trip, "in the event of a death or serious illness (requiring hospitalization or hospice care) of an immediate family member."

Its website lists the several dozen types of people who fall under the definition of "immediate family member." But it also requires some substantial documentation from the potential passenger for that discount: a copy of the death certificate if the relative is deceased or, in the event of a serious illness, a note on letterhead paper from a physician.

Experts suggest that if you have the time and emotional energy, shop around for discount fares, because a lot of compassion fares offer discounts only on the most expensive tickets to begin with.

In USA Today several years ago, Bill McGee noted it's hard not to be cynical and wonder whether the airlines are taking advantage of a customer's difficult situation "by making their bereavement fares opaque and available only by telephone, and therefore harder to comparison shop."

"Even non-cynics, however," he added, "would have to conclude that searching for bereavement fares is not easy even under the best of circumstances."

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Aug 8, 2013 1:15PM

Everybody is to blame here.  Airlines for making it so difficult or having just done away with them, and people who took advantage of the system and cried wolf. 


How messed up do you have to be to say grandma is dead, just to save 5% on a flight?

Aug 8, 2013 4:22PM
They have always been a joke I remember 12 years ago trying to go to my ex's fathers funeral they offered 50% off of list which was $1200 from Orange County, CA to Minneapolis. What a joke. I ended up using frequent flier miles and when we got to the airport the counter lady couldn't figure out how to print the tickets while we stood there for 45 minutes and missed the flight and missed the wake. Her response "oh well they were free tix". Needless to say that was the last time I flew that airline.

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