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In flu emergency, are airlines playing fair with fliers?

OK. So you don't like US Airways' policy on ticketing changes related to the swine flu. You really don't like it and you're letting me - and them - know. You've been so loud and persistent that you've goaded me into doing tedious, mind-numbing, read-the-fine-print research about said policies and I'm not even going to Mexico.

The problem, you tell me, is this: airlines get favorable press for being good citizens during a health emergency by waiving change fees, when in fact, these fees are the least of passenger worries once the airlines start tacking on higher prices for the new tickets you're forced to purchase within a limited period of time. You may be right.

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But not so quick. Based on my research, most airlines are being fairly lenient with travelers who need to rebook flights. Most are allowing changes for flights scheduled through May 31. (I think 30 days should be the standard.) And most are also allowing passengers to rebook another flight sometime within several months up to a year. WestJet is even offering full refunds.

The exception in terms of generosity seems to be US Airways, which is funny since they were first out of the gate in waiving change fees. US Airways' policy forcing travelers to use their tickets within 14 days of the original travel date seems unusually restrictive. A spokesperson for US Airways offered to look into specific traveler claims but referred me to their travel advisory page. In the annual Airline Quality Ratings released last month, US Airways had the worst rate in terms of consumer complaints. Enough said.

So here are the policies related to swine flu cancellations/changes from some major airlines that fly to Mexico:

AirTran: Waiving change fees ($75) for flights to/from Cancun scheduled through May 15. You can rebook to Cancun for any time within the next several months. You can also book other cities instead, but you must pay the difference in fare.

American Airlines: Waiving change fee on tickets purchased on or before April 24 for travel by May 31. Passengers can re-ticket for same destination city in Mexico or to another city for travel within 12 months from the original purchase date of their ticket. Any difference in fare still applies. Travelers can also receive a refund in the form of a travel voucher good for up to one year.

Continental: As of today, Continental has extended its waiver to allow passengers to reschedule without penalty by the end of the month. Rescheduled flights to the same city will not require additional fare if booked in the same class. If your flight has been cancelled, you can request a refund. Or the value of your ticket also can go towards another flight. And passengers have a year from the issue date of the original reservation to complete their travel. 

Delta:  Will allow a one-time ticket change without any fare difference or change fees, provided your  rescheduled flight is between the same city pairs and in the same class. If you want to change your destination, you will receive credit toward the purchase of a new ticket for a period of one year from the original issue date. No change fee will apply if you rebook by May 16. These options are for those traveling to/from/through Mexico April 26 to May 16.

United Airlines: No charge for first-time change to an itinerary. Accepting changes for those scheduled on flights through May 31. If you have not begun your trip, you will need to make changes within 21 days of the affected travel dates.

USAirways: Waiving change fee and advance ticketing requirements if you reschedule within 14 days of your original flight. Passengers can rebook for a new destination and apply the full value of wholly unused tickets toward the new ticket, however travel must originate within 14 days of the original scheduled date. (Yikes!) All other fare rules apply, which means you have to pay any difference in price between your old and new flights.

US3000: Waiving change fees if you reschedule your flight by 8 p.m. the day before scheduled departure. Passengers can rebook travel for any time before Dec. 15.  Valid for passengers scheduled on flights April 25-May 13. You will need to pay any difference in fare.

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