US airlines are waiving fees and canceling domestic flights as coronavirus spreads

American Airlines on March 10 announced temporary reductions in its domestic flight schedule that would extend into summer, the latest move by a US airline related to rising travel concerns during the coronavirus outbreak. This decision follows United and JetBlue’s announcement on March 4 that they would cut back on domestic routes until May, and shows how US-based airlines are buckling down to reduce overhead costs. Carriers, including American, Alaska, Delta, JetBlue, and United, are also waiving some change and cancellation ticket fees for both domestic and international flights, as people reassess their travel plans.

However, be sure to read the terms and conditions of these waivers. Most airlines are only allowing travelers who booked flights within a certain window, typically in late February and March, to make changes without charge. Some customers who have scheduled a trip months before the spread of Covid-19 argue this time frame is too narrow and are calling on airlines to extend the benefits to all flights given the health threat.

USA Today reported that Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) recently sent a letter to executives of US airlines including American, Delta, and United, asking them to waive all fees for travelers in the midst of a public health crisis.

“Airlines should enable consumers to adjust their travel plans — regardless of when those decisions are made or when a passenger’s ticket was purchased,” Blumenthal wrote in a letter to American Airlines CEO Doug Parker. So far, no US airline has extended the waiver window for flights purchased before late February.

These are the latest airline updates as of March 5, including fee waivers, refunds, reduced flights, and the dates they currently extend to:

  • American Airlines will waive change fees for passengers who’ve bought a ticket between March 5 and March 31. It’s also suspending flights to Milan, Italy through April 24, and halting operations to and from Seoul, South Korea. The carrier is expected to reduce 10 percent of its international flight capacity into summer’s peak travel season. Read all of American’s travel updates here.
  • Alaska Airlines will waive fees for tickets purchased between February 27 and March 31, which applies to any travel through June 30. The policy applies to all of its fares, including its “saver fares,” which generally don’t allow changes or cancellations. Read more on Alaska’s travel advisories and its plane cleaning measures here.
  • Delta will waive fees for all flights booked between March 1 and 31, including international flights previously booked that are scheduled to fly in March. The airline allows passengers to make a one-time change through April 30 for trips to Shanghai and Beijing, China; Seoul, South Korea; and all locations in Italy. Read more on Delta’s travel updates here.
  • JetBlue will waive fees for all new flights booked between February 27 and March 11 for travel through June 1. Although the airline primarily serves a domestic market, it’s expected to cut its capacity by 5 percent, Reuters reported.
  • United will allow all travelers booking a flight between March 3 and 31 to change it for free over the next 12 months. The airline will suspend flights between the US and Beijing, Chengdu, Hong Kong, and Shanghai through April 30. Starting in April, United will also reduce domestic routes by 10 percent and international flights by 20 percent. Read more on United’s travel alerts here.

According to the International Air Transport Association, demand for global air travel will decline for the first time since 2009 and airlines could lose up to $113 billion in revenue if Covid-19 continues — a forecast that suggests the outbreak could disrupt the industry as significantly as the Great Recession. Already, conferences and sporting events have been put on hold, and high-profile companies are taking precautions to limit employee travel.

Since January, airlines have been reducing service and offering waivers to travelers to mainland China, but with the virus’s ongoing spread, more and more passengers are hesitant to board a plane. British airlines have also canceled hundreds of flights throughout March.

As I previously reported, the travel industry is usually hit the hardest by pandemic threats. People are choosing to not travel, and politicians in cities and countries around the world are clamoring to secure their borders against the threat of a spreadable disease. During the 2003 SARS outbreak, which affected over 8,000 people, stocks of US airlines dropped more than 30 percent (as did the economy overall), Barron’s reported.

Austin Horowitz, senior aviation management consultant at the global consulting firm ICF, previously told me that the financial effects of a major flight suspension “would not be much greater than people electing not to travel” since airlines are “already losing a significant number of passengers because people are not traveling voluntarily.”

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