Too Sick To Fly? Sorry, No Refunds

When Gail Sieg's daughter came down with the flu in 1990, USAir allowed her to change the dates of four nonrefundable Pittsburgh-to-San Francisco tickets at no charge. And last July, when the suburban Pittsburgh mother of two became ill, USAir gave her husband a full refund on a discount ticket to Frankfurt. "USAir has been wonderful in understanding that illness is something beyond our control," says Sieg.

No more. USAir has quietly scrapped its policy allowing free changes or full refunds for discount travelers with a doctor's note. Now, passengers who cancel because of their own or another traveler's illness can only apply a nonrefundable fare to another ticket, minus a $75 charge. Holders of partially refundable tickets pay $10 to $50.

While USAir is the first major U.S. carrier to tighten restrictions significantly on illness waivers, many in the travel industry doubt it will be the last. "The fewer the airlines, the greater the restrictions will be," says Donna Musselman of Pittsburgh's Fortune Travel.

Ironically, USAir's ditching of medical waivers was part of a broader liberalization of its ticket restrictions. Now, anyone changing or canceling a nonrefundable ticket pays the service charges regardless of reason. That's great for travelers who just change their minds--they previously lost most or all of their money--but a pain for people who get sick. "Before, we spent a lot of time determining what was legitimate illness and what wasn't," says USAir spokeswoman Susan Young.

Still, USAir's policy looks lenient compared with those of some foreign carriers. If you select the lowest fares on Sabena or SAS, simply being ill won't get your money back--you have to be hospitalized. British Airways gives no refunds for health on its lowest fares. U.S. airlines such as United, on the other hand, offer the same illness waivers on foreign and domestic flights. So do your homework before choosing a carrier.

FAMILY AFFAIR. Even if you stay healthy, you may not get a refund if a loved one at home falls ill. Most U.S. carriers allow medical waivers for family members as distant as a mother-in-law. But with foreign airlines the ill relative usually must be a spouse or immediate family member.

It's also tricky when traveling companions are unmarried couples or business associates. Southwest and most foreign carriers don't specifically allow refunds if one person gets sick and the other must cancel, too. So you'll have to plead your case with the customer service department. Airlines will make exceptions--especially if you or your company give them lots of business.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.