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Although there are no surveys on the number of sick people who fly because of the airlines’ rigid rules, there’s ample anecdotal evidence that airline passengers are boarding their flights whether they feel well or not.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/14/2008 10:43:40 AM ET 2008-04-14T14:43:40

With a fever that soared to a mind-numbing 103 degrees and a chest rattling with acute bronchitis, Kathryn Clover’s co-worker was in no shape to fly from Buenos Aires to Miami recently. But she boarded the plane, anyway.

“She passed out on the first flight,” remembers Clover, an operations manager for a nonprofit organization in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “She was absolutely miserable for the long trip back. And I, in turn, was miserable because I was taking care of her and she was coughing on me — and our surrounding passengers — for 15 hours.”

Why would anyone get on an aircraft while in the throes of a contagious, debilitating viral infection?

Maybe the question should be: Why not?

A lot of airlines won’t waive their strict nonrefundability rules unless you can show them a death certificate. It’s pretty much been that way since 9/11, and although the policies were relaxed somewhat in recent years, higher fuel prices and a softening economy have forced air carriers to take a hard line on refunds once again.

Here’s what often happens when someone tries to call off a flight for the sake of their own health, and the welfare of other passengers.

On a recent trip from San Diego, Calif., to West Lafayette, Ind., Candis Dorsch’s husband developed a profuse nosebleed. “It wouldn’t stop,” she recalls. “It was obvious to us he could not fly without endangering himself, other passengers or the crew. It was obvious he needed medical attention.”

But when Dorsch phoned Delta to explain the situation and ask if they could rebook the ticket, the carrier refused to waive any of her fees. “They told us we needed to board or our ticket would expire,” she says.

Although there are no surveys on the number of sick people who fly because of the airlines’ rigid rules, there’s ample anecdotal evidence that airline passengers are boarding their flights whether they feel well or not. As a result, there’s an odd kind of theater taking place at the boarding area. Sick passengers are showing up at the gate, either to plead with the airline to be allowed to fly later, or downplaying their symptoms, hoping gate agents won’t notice their condition and permit them to fly.

Sometimes they’re allowed to board, sometimes not.

It’s a no-win situation. If sick passengers fly, they risk harming themselves — passing out, as Clover’s colleague did, or worse, dying, as a passenger on an American Airlines flight recently did . And if passengers are carrying an infectious disease, they could potentially spread a virus to people around them as well, which may be one of the reasons SARS made it to five countries within just a day several years ago.

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If ill air travelers aren’t allowed to board, they may be able to get the airline to waive their fees — technically they’ve been denied boarding involuntarily — but now they have to find their way home or to a hotel or a hospital. And they’re already in the airport terminal, which is a public area, and God only knows how many people they’ve already infected. Was that really worth the few hundred dollars the airline made?

To get an idea of how rigid airlines have become with their sick passengers, consider what happened to Kurtis Williams, an astronomer from Austin, Texas, who was scheduled to fly from Austin to San Jose, Calif., recently. “The evening before my return, I came down with the worst flu I’ve had in a long time,” he says. “It hurt to move, it hurt to talk, and my fever was 104.” So Williams phoned his carrier, US Airways, to tell it he was too sick to fly.

“In addition to the change fee, they also charged me the fare difference — a cool $258,” he says. “So it cost me $358 to do the right thing and wait a day to go home. My total fare ended up being only $25 cheaper than if I’d purchased a new, one-way ticket for the return trip home.”

So what do you do if you’re too sick to fly?

1. Don’t give up
It may not be necessary to change your ticket or buy a new one. Despite what the offshore phone operators may tell you in barely understandable English, your airline has some compassion. Just not in that particular department, maybe. A doctor’s note and a polite letter to the right department may encourage your airline to do the right thing. I also list the names of higher -level customer service managers on my Web site. Appeal your case to them, if necessary.

2. Show up and let ’em see you
If you plead your case at the gate, while you’re coughing and wheezing and bleeding out the eyes, your airline might see things your way. Gate agents screen passengers to make sure they’re airworthy, and can disqualify them for anything from smelling bad to being too drunk. You remember the TV show “Airline”? Well, if you’re too sick and a gate agent makes that determination, chances are you’ll be put on a future flight without having to pay extra. It might be worth the trip to the airport.

3. Argue your case
An airline lets itself off the hook when it can’t fly because of what it calls a force majeure event — something beyond its control. For example, if there’s a thunderstorm that prevents it from operating its planes safely, it isn’t obligated to compensate you for the delay or to pick up your hotel expenses. Why shouldn’t the same standard apply to you? (Answer: it should, of course.) An airline shouldn’t be able to apply one set of standards to itself and another to its passengers. And they know it.

4. Get help
In the unlikely event that you’re staggering around the gate in a fever-induced delirium, while an airline employee insists you either board the plane or lose your fare, you can try two Hail-Mary strategies to convince them you should be allowed to fly once you’re better. First, you can inform the passengers around you that you’re ill and ask them if they want to breathe the same recirculated air for the next five hours. I guarantee they will become forceful advocates for your cause. Second, you could phone the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. See how they feel about having a sick person on a flight.

Not all airlines are pigheaded when it comes to their sick customers. When Patricia Eachus’ husband was sent to the emergency room recently, Hawaiian Airlines charged him a $100 cancellation fee to reschedule his flight, but promised a refund if she could send a doctor’s note. She did.

“My next credit card billing had the $100 credit from Hawaiian Air,” she says. “Also, when my husband checked in, Hawaiian marked his checked luggage as ‘priority’ so it would come off the plane in the first batch. It changed his seating to have an empty seat next to him. And it allowed him to board early, asking if there was anything else that they could do to make him more comfortable for the flight.”

Ahh, don’t you just love a happy ending?

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

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