Airline Change Fees Blamed for Spread of Ebola

Christopher Elliott suggests that airline change fee policies could contribute to an Ebola outbreak.

No, really.

The idea is that a passenger with Ebola might choose to fly because they can’t cancel without penalty. They’ll risk infecting others over their $200 airline change fee.

He suggests the government needs to do something.

[U]nless Ebola is contained quickly, it seems the travel industry’s cancellation rules, which themselves are slow to change, could collide with an infected customer’s aversion to losing a ticket credit. This may be the right time for the government to take a more active role to ensure Ebola isn’t spread by travel via air, land or sea because of shortsighted corporate policies.

I am generally not a fan of buying trip interruption and cancellation insurance (a position I have held for quite some time).

But it seems odd to suggest that airlines need to eat the cost of changes, as a result of public health concerns, rather than mandating purchase of travel insurance (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act mandates purchase of health insurnace..) or that government provide or subsidize such insurance.

While Elliott says he’s postponed a trip to Dallas over Ebola fears, he thinks that those actually exposed won’t change their plans. Ironically the last patient being monitored in Dallas for Ebola has been cleared. And spread there appears to have been contained despite airlines not having changed their policies.

Airline change fees are not among the top 10 contributing factors to Ebola. Nor are airline change fees a priority issue in containing its spread. Notably, while Mr. Elliott may use the disease an an opportunity to beat up on airlines, the Centers for Disease Control hasn’t made any request for airlines to adjust their policies as part of the broad strategy to fight Ebola.

While it’s possible to believe that all tickets ought to be refundable or changeable without penalty in the event of fear of illness (this would likely raise airfares if airlines have to take the risk of seats going unsold in the event of illness-related free cancellations), the recent scare over Ebola doesn’t especially bolster that case.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Fake stories about Ebola spreading are not helping anything. Maybe Elliot has some reason to believe this strategy will work but I don’t see it and it somewhat angers me because I feel Ebola hysteria is linked to racism.

    That said, thousands of Americans die of flu and pneumonia — actual airborne diseases — every year, and everyone figures it’s the other guy who will die, so they’re not gonna lose their $200 airline change fee (plus non-cxl hotel room and who knows what else) in order to stay home. This is a real issue that has been going on for years now. We don’t need a fake issue.

    IMHO what the government needs to do is put a stop to ALL industries that charge people whether or not a service is provided. Not just airlines. ALL industries. Ex: A hotel should not be allowed to charge a cancellation fee absent evidence the hotel otherwise missed a sale (was 100% sold out, turned away other customers, and then somehow still couldn’t sell the room when the customer canceled). Same for airlines. A small fee of $10 or $25 to cover the paperwork is fine. More than that is stealing and needs to be prosecuted as stealing.

  2. Elliott demonstrated his typical poor judgment by cancelling a trip to Dallas because of Ebola (undoubtedly, he would have been at more risk driving to the airport than getting ebola in Dallas). He also shows his poor news judgment by writing about ebola while the rest of the world has moved on to new topics. 🙂

    That said, the current system we have of non-refundable airline tickets (on pretty much every airline except Southwest) is certainly less than ideal — and largely an accident of history. I certainly could conceive of somebody flying with a communicable disease because they didn’t want to lose the value of their ticket. Far more likely, of course, are people cancelling their trips because something has “come up.” Heck, I just had to eat the cost of an airline ticket for my daughter after her high school sports team made the state finals and they scheduled the game on her travel date. That’s not a recipe for customer happiness, but I’m not sure of the alternatives. We all might be happier if the airlines charged everyone 10% more for their tickets are offered more ticket flexibility, but how the heck would that get implemented?

  3. Airlines relax their change fees when they know weather is going to be bad, they should do the same thing for flights to/from the impacted areas in Africa right now. Yup, there will be people who take advantage, but that alone could stop the disease from being flown around the world.

    Of course, that’s not what he’s advocating for here, instead opting to fan the ridiculous hysteria that Americans are somehow at risk. Like commenters there said, the flu will kill far more people this year. There is no need for domestic flights to have relaxed change policies.

  4. @Brian L, @Christian – totally disagree on the ‘idiot’ stuff. Not really the right level of discourse. State substantive disagreements — clearly from this post, I have my share — but no need for name calling. Doesn’t help the case IMHO.


  5. Gary, I struggle with the line to walk concerning your responses to his articles. As you’ve demonstrated a number of times, he often takes positions that appear dubious at best, and while I love seeing your logic take apart his arguments, I have to wonder at what point your coverage of him simply raises his profile even further, which ultimately provides him a larger platform to spread irrational drivel. I have no easy solution, just clearing my head of some thoughts!

  6. I’ve flow with a fever before to save the $400 in international change fees. Time was not the issue for me as a student, but the fact that I’d have to work 40 hours to pay it back (and only because I’m lucky to have a job that pays more than minimum wage) was. When you have an onset of a fever you have no way of telling them apart. It was flu instead of Ebola, so more of my seatmates got infected as Ebola is much more difficult to catch, but I took the risk due to monetary considerations.

    The fact that you business guys on this blog are all making $100,000 or more (and traveling in premium classes without a seatmate right next to you), makes you completely out of touch with the fact that to many Americans $400 is real money. And America is a top 1% in the global population: to the average African who may have saved a lifetime for a trip to see their relatives, $400 is 4 months of wages — yes, they’re going to fly with a fever instead of paying that much changing their plans.

    Elliott is on to something here. These policies do have externalities, something that you fail to see. They may be small and low probability on an ordinary day (there are studies pointing out how diseases like flu spread on planes), but are a bit higher when the disease is more lethatl.

  7. There is a course of action and it doesn’t have anything to do with change fees. “A quarantine is used to separate and restrict the movement of persons; it is a ‘state of enforced isolation’.[1] This is often used in connection to disease and illness…” – Wikipedia.

    Translation – Stay inside for a while, don’t go bike riding, don’t immediately go out on the town after you return from an ebola stricken area. Duh.

  8. Gary, do your 40,000+ readers a favor and actually proofread your articles. Or at least run them through a spellcheck program. Maybe your constant need to post a dozen articles a day to maintain your “expert” status has you cutting corners, but don’t skip the proofreading corner. Your articles are painful to read sometimes because of the number of mistakes. And mistakes take away from your expert status.

  9. Why do you guys keep giving that moron Elliott air time when what you should be contemplating is how to get him onto a one way flight to Liberia?

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