Bereavement air travel policies vary

Emergency fares, when offered, are left up to the carrier


March 06, 2005|By Alfred Borcover | Alfred Borcover,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Bereavement, compassion or emergency airfares - whatever the airlines choose to call them - leave grieving family members with one more bewildering issue to deal with at a time of crisis.

When a family member dies or has a life-threatening emergency in a distant city or town and driving isn't an option, families have no alternative other than to fly.

Because each airline treats bereavement or compassion fares differently, anguished family members can only hope for the best as they try to arrange flights at a moment's notice.

Last year, one paragraph folded into the U.S. Senate's National Intelligence Reform Act of 2004 (referred to as the 9-11 bill) attempted to tackle the bereavement fare issue. A section of the bill said, in essence, airlines should make bereavement fares available, when practicable, at the lowest fare offered by the carrier for the flight for which the bereavement fare is requested. While the bill was being ironed out in a House-Senate conference committee, that section was eliminated.

One can speculate that the bereavement section, which seemed compassionate to some legislators, may have smacked of reregulation in a deregulated industry. Whatever the reason, the bottom line is the operative principle: It's a hardhearted world out there, and cash-strapped airlines have no obligation to offer bereavement fares.

Terry Trippler, a leading airline consumer advocate, questioned the need for Congress to mandate the fare any more than it would for the rental car business. "Congress should stay out of this. I don't think the Congress needs to dictate whether an airline does or does not give people a bereavement fare," Trippler said. "They are not social service companies. It's not their problem."

Nevertheless, bereavement fares do exist, and it's up to the consumer to find them or turn to a trusted travel agent for help.

If you search hard enough, you might find bereavement fare policies posted on airline Web sites, but ultimately you have to phone the carrier to get a fare. Some airlines have compassionate, enlightened bereavement policies. Others have none. If you're making arrangements on your own, call the airline and ask for a bereavement fare. If the fare seems high, ask if there are any lower, last-minute fares available.

Also, you most likely can find a better fare on a low-cost carrier such as ATA (800-435-9282;, AirTran (800-247-8726;, JetBlue (800-538-2583; or Southwest (800-435-9792; if one serves your area and destination.

Be aware that airlines require verification: name of the relative; relationship to the customer; name, address and telephone number of the funeral home, hospice or hospital; and the name of the doctor if applicable.

Of all the major carriers, United Airlines' approach appears nearly identical to the ill-fated section in the Senate bill.

"We will offer the lowest available fare that's for sale and will waive advance-purchase and minimum-stay requirements," a United spokeswoman said. "The fare is available to immediate family members - spouse, parent, child, grandparents, grandchildren, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, domestic partner. We ask that documentation be provided - death certificate, doctor's note, something that verifies the emergency."

For more details, contact United Airlines at 800-864-8331, or see

Here's how other carriers handle the bereavement issue:

American Airlines (800-433-7300; American's Web site says the carrier offers an emergency fare for different situations, but the fare is not available online. The bereavement fare is about 50 percent off the published coach fare, a spokeswoman said, explaining that it carries no restrictions and provides for a flexible return date. I phoned American reservations to ask about a Chicago-San Francisco round-trip bereavement fare and was quoted $525.40. A compassionate reservations agent then suggested a last-minute sale fare of $268.90.

Continental Airlines (800-523-3273; Its Web site notes that Continental "offers a special compassion fare in the event of a death or serious illness (requiring hospitalization or hospice care) of an immediate family member. Compassion fares have a very flexible change policy and no advance purchase requirement; however, more restrictive, advance-purchase fares may be lower."

Delta Air Lines (800-221-1212; "We no longer have bereavement or emergency fares because we have simplified our pricing structure," a Delta spokesman said, referring to their new SimpliFares. "The highest fare you'll pay is $499 one way."

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