When Airlines Won’t Pay

Bri, Marketing

I couldn’t help but notice that the NY Times recently ran an article about the frustrations travelers are experiencing lately, as airlines find ways to avoid taking any kind of responsibility for delays and cancellations that severely disrupt people’s plans.  As I read the article, a little voice in my head kept saying, “…but if you have travel insurance, you might be covered….”  But alas, the Times piece doesn’t mention travel insurance at all.

So I will.

I’ll be up-front about my motives: I’m not suggesting for a moment that travel insurance is some sort of magic genie — you can’t just rub the lamp you’ve stowed in your carry-on (assuming it contains less than 3.4 oz of liquid and is stored in a zip-top bag) and wish for full compensation for every inconvenience.  But travel insurance, when purchased wisely and applied properly, can be helpful in recovering some of the costs of a vacation gone awry.

For example, the NY Times includes the following tale of woe:

“Adam Martin was given the weather excuse in June when his American Airlines flight from Chicago to Washington required a mechanical fix. The flight was later delayed by thunderstorms and ultimately canceled, but Mr. Martin said he had to pay for a hotel and cab fare because the cancellation was coded as weather-related. ‘Had the plane been running properly, we would’ve gotten out just fine,’ he said.”

Many travel insurance policies will offer some sort of travel delay coverage, and unlike the often-nebulous contracts of carriage the airlines seem to be hiding behind, the coverage generally applies even in — gasp — bad weather.  In other words, when an airline throws up its hands and says, “Oops, bad weather — out of our control, not our problem,” travelers with insurance policies may be able to avoid getting stuck with bills like Mr. Martin’s.  Most travel delay coverage takes effect when you’ve been delayed for 6 hours or more, and will reimburse you for expenses like lodging, food, and other reasonable incidentals.  (Reasonable, mind you — so, there will likely be no check coming your way to cover the cost of that in-airport massage you got to alleviate the stress of the delay.  But your dinner at the oh-so-swanky airport TGI Friday’s Express will be easier to swallow knowing you’re not getting stuck with the check.)

Even more prevalent in recent headlines than weather delays seem to be airline strikes, both actual and impending.  Consumer frustration with these little gems of travel inconvenience is understandably high, and made more so, if possible, by the response from the airlines in question: predictably, both concerned for the welfare of travelers, and laissez-faire when it comes to actually assisting those same travelers in any substantial way.  Of this situation, the Times offers:

“Ruben Ahumada discovered this when his June 12 Spirit Airlines flight from Bogotá, Colombia, to Washington, D.C., was canceled because of the pilots’ strike. ‘I inquired about being accommodated on another airline and Spirit said no,’ Mr. Ahumada said. He ended up using 30,000 frequent flier miles — and paying $186 in taxes and booking fees — for a flight home on American. ‘I was left in a foreign country with only a $180 refund — no food, no hotel, nothing,’ he said.”

Not to take sides or anything, but…ouch.  Now, it should be said at the outset that the question of travel insurance and airline strikes is what might be termed a “sticky wicket.”  There’s no definitive “yes” or “no” answer I can give as to whether or not passengers like Mr. Ahumada would be covered by travel insurance, at least not without having a good deal of detailed information.  But I can give a confident “it’s certainly possible.”  Here’s why: in the case of a strike like the Spirit Airlines debacle, it’s not good enough to buy a travel insurance policy the day before the strike officially occurs and assume that you’ll be covered.  Almost without exception, the likelihood of a labor dispute is publicized days or weeks before the actual event.  That means that you’d have to have purchased a travel insurance policy before the official announcement of the possibility of a strike for that policy to offer you any protection should the likelihood become a reality.  (This is what is meant by the  term “unforeseen event” — if the event is already in anyone’s proverbial crystal ball, insurance won’t cover it.  It’s sort of like trying to insure your home right after the inspection reveals that the wiring is faulty.)   However, since like good, smart, prepared travelers, we know you’ll always contact us to purchase travel insurance within 7-30 days of booking your trip rather than waiting for dire news of some disaster to hit the airwaves, most of you will probably be able to avoid Mr. Ahumada’s fate in the future.  With an appropriate policy purchased in a timely fashion, he and his fellow inconvenienced travelers should have been able to request reimbursement for not only the food, hotel lodgings, and other incidentals (as mentioned above), but also for the hefty costs of the tickets that ultimately got them home.  Also important to note in the case of a strike is that airlines do not always fully reimburse passengers in cash for their lost tickets.  Travel insurance, which operates on a “make-whole” philosophy, would most likely pick up the remainder of those costs for you.

Beyond incidentals and transportation expenses, there’s one other aspect of travel insurance that’s worth highlighting with regard to airline delays and cancellations.  Most of us, unless we’re embarking on a nomadic adventure with a pup tent, Sham-Wow, and powdered shampoo strapped to our backs, arrive at the airport for our trips having made — and paid for — hotel accommodations and possibly some other non-refundable arrangements in advance.  If the runaround with the airlines means you’re stranded for more than 24-48 hours (depending on your policy), you may actually be able to cancel your trip altogether and receive reimbursement for all those non-refundables.

It would be nice to live in a world where everyone, whether individual citizens or business entities, acknowledged their responsibility in the ups and downs of life, and did their best from an ethical standpoint to make things right.  However, from reading the NY Times piece as well as several other recent articles and editorials, I can only surmise that the airlines, at least, are not all inhabiting that particular fantasy land.   Which means travelers can’t, either.  But while travel insurance may not provide all the unicorns and rainbows necessary to get you there, it can at least offer a little peace of mind that someone is protecting your investment — even if the air travel industry won’t.

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