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Insta-CoGo: Bend Travel Rules for Iraq Vets?

Cindy Loose

Should military families get a break on airline rules? Does it make a difference if the military personnel in question is returning from a war zone?

CoGo just recieved a complaint about an airline and wonders how, or whether, to proceed. Here's the deal: A mom and dad and fiancee were told that their Marine, returning from Iraq, would be at a certain place and time in March, so they bought airlne tickets to go see him for four days. But then the military changed the date by two days. Mom, dad and fiancee had bought nonrefundable tickets, and to change them, they each had to pay $100 -- the usual change fee for a nonrefundable ticket.

The family notes that the Marine will be deployed again in December, we assume meaning back to Iraq, so they want to spend the maximum amount of time with him now. The family doesn't mention why the Marine couldn't simply come home, instead of them going to see him.

Generally, CoGo intervenes only when a provider is being unfair by breaking its own rules. However, penalties for changing nonrefundable tickets are clear, and generally you pay a lot less for a nonrefundable ticket than for a refundable one, and you choose which is likely the better deal for you. If your circumstances change, well, that's the price you pay.

But should it be different for military families? Should an airline make an exception for a case like the one above?

By Cindy Loose |  February 12, 2008; 7:34 AM ET  | Category:  Airline Industry , Cindy Loose , Insta-CoGo
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Ohhh...that's a tough one. My gut inclination is to say "defend them" because refundable-changeable tickets on the legacies are so disproportionately expensive.

But, on the flip side, you're right - why didn't the son just come visit them? Or, why didn't they book on a carrier like Southwest that gives you a lot more flexibility on the ticket?

Posted by: Liz | February 12, 2008 8:29 AM

I have had airlines waive fees for me for many times without even asking. Sometimes it needs a manager approval but I would like to meet the manager that would not approve this family's change fees.

I guess they are just doing their job but how shockingly unsympathetic!

Posted by: Shocked | February 12, 2008 9:03 AM

I'm all for helping out vets and their families. If there's a way airlines could cut them a break, I think that would be great (and I'd be more likely to fly an airline that would). But how would you determine who really is a family member of a vet (in this case, neither the parents nor the fiancee would have a military dependent ID) and who was just gaming the system?

Posted by: Anonymous | February 12, 2008 9:46 AM

I think it would be nice if the individual supervisor cut this family a break, but I think it would be a mistake to make it official policy to do so - there are plenty of people who have to travel for plenty of reasons in plenty of bad situations, and I think it would be unfair to only extend that kind of generosity to military families.

Posted by: h3 | February 12, 2008 9:48 AM

I'm with h3. Don't make it a policy, but train supervisors to use discretion.

It's not as if these people changed their travel dates on a whim - they were changed for them.

Posted by: Chasmosaur | February 12, 2008 10:48 AM

As far as I know, the army usually flies soldiers to their home base, not necessarily to their "homes". This can mean that they wind up quite a long way from their families. Also, they don't necessarily have leave to go whereever they want, so the families might have to travel to them. Given the uncertainties of military travel though, the better solution might be for airlines to offer discounts on refundable tickets for military families.

Posted by: annapolis | February 12, 2008 10:48 AM

I don't think ALL military families should be given a break. But, families of those serving in Iraq and other war zones certainly should be treated with greater leniency. Maybe the family can provide some sort of documentation or time/date-stamped email from the Marine identifying his original return date and the new date. I am not military so I don't know how the military notifies personnel about going home.

Non-refundable tickets are less expensive for a reason. I can see how it could be "unfair" to the airlines having to honor low fares and still allow people to make changes without fees. Airlines are, after all, a business, and businesses' primary goal is to make a profit.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 12, 2008 4:28 PM

Similar experience. Deployed to DC from Washington State for a several months, decided to take leave one weekend and fly home, got permission, purchased non-refundable ticket, hurricane hit so schedule changed and had to work the following weekend (planned travel weekend).

The ticket was on Southwest, they were very nice and gave me a voucher to use against future travel. I didn't use it in the one-year window so was out the money anyway.

Posted by: Brad | February 13, 2008 11:18 AM

No way man..my dad was a vet and I get no breaks..They bought the tickets, the airline didnt mess up, talk to his commanding officer, get a refund through that person...not the airline.

Posted by: Jonjon | February 13, 2008 3:31 PM

As a Veteran, I have a simple response, No!

I didn't serve so I, or my family, could get all sorts of perks related to my military service.

How far do you go in giving "breaks" and to whom?

A fare break for the Active Duty soldier/sailor is fine with me. Some consideration for families of POWs and Missing in Action during a war, again is fine with me. But, you can see how the POW/MIA aspect can become a problem after conflicts end. 30+ years after Vietnam some people are still pushing that.

Sound management judgment on a case-by-case basis by the carriers for issues relating to family beyond a soldier's wife and kids is the best way to go. [Until a fiance becomes a wife, she's not family].

Posted by: DC | February 14, 2008 1:11 PM

This should be a no brainer. When the change needed is the result of a pre or post deployment change then any fees associated with that change for the military personnel and immediate family should be waived. No matter where the ticket was purchased or the price. It should be a law, end of discussion. Can someone please get this one passed.

Posted by: Richard Potiker | February 26, 2008 9:42 PM

This should be a no brainer. When the change needed is the result of a pre or post deployment change then any fees associated with that change for the military personnel and immediate family should be waived. No matter where the ticket was purchased or the price. It should be a law, end of discussion. Can someone please get this one passed.

Posted by: Richard Potiker | February 26, 2008 9:57 PM

I believe all airlines should make it policy to refund non-refundable tickets for all active duty, spouses, and children. Also, non-refundable tickets should be refunded for close family in cases where the active duty member's leave status changes. We are all at the mercy of the military. We have to make your plans around what the military wants us to do. I am a spouse of an active duty military currently stationed in Japan. We did not ask to be sent clear across the world away from family in the states. Do any of you realize how hard it is to get flights to visit family? To buy a commercial flight from Japan to CA and then to central US is $6000-$7000. Yea, we can fly Space A for free to the coast of the US, but we are not guaranteed a seat. We may get from point A to point B and be stuck for days before we can actually get to point C. Now point C is where we have bought the domestic ticket($2000-$3000). We have no control of when we arrive to the states. I do not think we should have to pay higher prices for refundable tickets or pay extra to have dates changed. My husband is serving and protecting your country. We as a family sacrifice family, friends, and the American way of life. Those of you that live near family and friends have no idea what it is like not to be able to see those that you love whenever you want. We have to come out of pocket big money for just one visit whether it be living overseas or in the states. In all actuality, active duty and family should receive free flights once a year to visit our place of residency. It's the least that could be done to support our troops for having to live like a jypsy and never really having a place to call home.

Posted by: SL | March 16, 2008 2:43 AM

You make a strong and compelling case. Sounds to me like the U.S. government should provide tickets to military families to visit home. The World Bank provides travel money to their families every other year--that would be a policy the government could copy.

As to non-refundable tickets being refunded--most airlines will work with the military. Recently someone told me about a man injured in Iraq who had to cancel his planned family visit to Disney--it was supposed to be part of his homecoming but it was not to be. I called American, which said no request had been made and that they are very flexible in such cases, and the man soon had the money back in his pocket. The case I mentioned above is a little more complicated because the family members traveling are not in the military. That I felt made it a harder case to argue.
As to the U.S. government paying for family visits every year or two--I think it should be part of the price we taxpayers pay to have other people serve. I don't see why any single industry--namely the airlines--should shoulder the cost alone.

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