The end of compassion (fares)

Today, I took a friend to the airport. He is flying back home for his grandfather’s funeral. He had done some research on “bereavement fares” (also known as “compassion fares,” in that they used to be available also for visiting with a loved one who was near death, or had become suddenly ill or injured), and had figured out that only a few airlines seemed to offer them anymore. So he called the three airlines that seemed most certain to have these fares. The ticket agents at two of them said that these discounted fares were no longer available. The agent for the third airline acknowledged that they could offer a bereavement fare, but pointed out that it was more expensive than another available fare.

So my friend paid his nearly $400 to travel the 700 miles to his hometown, and I did what any self-respecting 21st century person with #firstworldproblems might do: I wrote an indignant tweet, hash-tagging some of the major airlines. And then I set off on an internet search to learn more about the problem.

In the past, the tickets bought under this kind of arrangement might (depending upon the airline) have a more flexible return date, which might be helpful in the midst of a family emergency. But it was also meant to offset the expense of buying a last minute ticket, with the idea that otherwise, some people might not be able to get to a loved one in a crisis.

It turns out that the lay of the land is more complicated than it had appeared at first: depending upon the veracity of various sources, there are indeed more airlines that offer a bereavement/compassion fare – but it also seems that what an airline’s website says may not be in line with the answer you get from a ticket agent. (Hang up and try again, one website suggested.) And while I added “#corporategreed” to my angry tweet, it does seem that each of the airlines is different – for example, while the CEO of United is being compensated $13.4 million this year, the executives at American are having a difficult time since declaring bankruptcy, and the executive at US Airways sent out a rather defensive letter last year, explaining that his compensation was significantly less than it had been in years past.

So it is possible to report on this issue from that perspective: struggling airlines, etc. etc. But the fact remains that my friend is paying for a seat that was still open at the last minute – a seat that would likely have been empty if he had not paid for it.

So I decided to check on one more fact: how much jet fuel is required to move each additional pound per mile. My friend and his baggage cost $5-7 in jet fuel to transport, round-trip. Add the napkins and sodas and (maybe) snacks (again, roundtrip), and still he added less than $10 to the cost of these scheduled flights with empty seats. So the airline made more than $350 off of the death of his grandfather. Would it really have killed them to make $250 instead?

Sure, it adds up. What if 10,000 travelers all wanted $100 off their roundtrip fare? Let’s see – that would be… $1million – less than the cost of one executive.

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