Demand Flexibility For Basic Economy Fares When The Passenger Gets Sick!

President Biden declared the pandemic over. We have vaccines and treatments and significant levels of background immunity, so it’s certainly not 2020 anymore. A nasal vaccine as booster could work as a variant-resistant pan-coronavirus vaccine that does a far better job limiting transmission than first-generation vaccines and variant boosters.

Most people have gotten back to normal. That includes the airlines, judging from the photos all over twitter of dirty planes. Pandemic travel waivers are over, and basic economy fares are back.

If you buy a basic economy fare and test positive for Covid-19 you generally aren’t entitled to delay your trip. If you choose not to take your flight, to prevent spreading the virus, you’re out the money. That is an incentive practically designed to bring Covid-positive passengers onto the aircraft.

The health and safety of our crew and customer is always a top priority!

— americanair (@AmericanAir) October 31, 2022

The Department of Transportation is working on new rules for passenger flexibility how are they not including this in the discussion?

For its part, an American Airlines spokesperson tells me,

We do allow customers who provide our Customer Relations team a positive Covid test a one-time change within the ticket validity period. So they do not lose the full value of the ticket.

That doesn’t appear to have been offered here and the issue goes far beyond Covid-19. Indeed maybe it’s appropriate for airline to treat Covid-19 like flu at this point. Hospital ICUs aren’t overwhelmed, and flexibility isn’t necessary to encourage people to book tickets. But flying while sick was something we should have been discouraging even before the pandemic, and it’s a lesson we should be taking away as well.

Years ago I sat next to a man with a bright red, almost glowing eye on a United flight from Washington Dulles to Los Angeles. Today I’d have excused myself, sought another seat. The plane wasn’t 100% full, but if it was I’d have gotten off while the doors were still open. In my early 20s I lacked the confidence. I wound up with a dendritic ulcer in my eye.

I’ve hated flying in flu season. Some people crumple up tissues in the middle seat next to them on Southwest Airlines, hoping nobody wants to take the seat and they get an empty middle. But someone who is actually sick? I genuinely don’t want to sit there. I was even a fan of ‘double masking’ long before SARS-CoV-2!, at least for other people (and would have worn a mask myself, but it didn’t feel socially acceptable in the U.S. the way it is in Asia prior to the pandemic).

Airlines need to sell facemasks inflight. Guy next to me hasn't stopped coughing all flight. I'd gladly buy him one. Or two.

— gary leff (@garyleff) March 6, 2016

Many people feel it’s acceptable to travel when they’re sick (and contagious). Or it’s too costly for them to make a different choice. We need to reduce the cost of better decision-making, and we need to change the culture to one where we do not intentionally infect others.

I’m not afraid of Covid at this point. But I see little reason to spread it, flu, RSV and other ailments unnecessarily. Surely a positive lab test or doctor’s note for a communicable virus ought to be enough to allow travel flexibility – as a published policy regardless of airline. This isn’t uniquely a travel question although it clearly comes up in travel. It’s a problem for offices that have mandated return to work. It’s a problem for customer-facing businesses. It’s not just about protecting customers, but employees too. Why create a system that encourages customers to get each other and your employees sick?

I wouldn’t accept the answer that ‘you bought basic economy, tough luck’ I’d certainly escalate. Most people won’t and they should not have to.

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