In Family Emergencies, Sky-High Air Fares Can Be Reduced

A New York resident was stunned when he called a major airline. A family emergency required him to make an immediate cross-country flight; the lowest round-trip ticket cost $1,300.

His brother, however, recalled that some airlines offered discounts for emergencies. Within minutes a travel agent called back with a special fare of $650 for a "compassion flight" on the same carrier that had been asking twice as much.

Despite recent price-discounting wars between airlines - aimed largely at the coming summer vacation months - ticket costs can still be staggering for individuals or families forced to make immediate travel plans.

Compassion flights, to visit a critically ill person, or bereavement flights, involving the funeral of a relative, can slash costs by hundreds of dollars per ticket. The flights are still hardly cheap, but a family can save thousands of dollars.

"Almost all major airlines offer emergency flights," says David Love, a spokesman for the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), a trade group in Alexandria, Va. "It's all very individual, though, depending on the number of open flights an airline has available, as well as their specific [fare] reductions."

Most major carriers and several smaller ones, have adopted or upgraded emergency-flight rules during the past year, airline experts say.

For compassion flights, Continental Airlines currently will take about 50 percent off the price of an unrestricted fare. TWA offers half-off its unrestricted fare or its highest nonrefundable fare, whichever is lowest. American Airlines offers discounts of slightly less than 50 percent on certain flights, but allows travelers to change the return date without penalty. Delta Air Lines offers half off an unrestricted fare. USAir usually knocks half off round-trip coach fares.

Bereavement flights are also offered by most carriers. Northwest's is particularly generous; it will cut the price of a round trip by 70 percent on certain unrestricted coach fares. United Airlines, Continental, USAir, and American generally offer discounts of up to 50 percent.

In the case of compassion or emergency flights, the airlines usually require that the passenger bring proof of a life-threatening illness, such as a letter signed by a hospital or other care-giver. The information is typically provided on the return flight. Other information may also be required, such as the relationship of the ill person to the traveler; and some documentation identifying the traveler. A photo ID may be required.

In the case of a death, the carriers sometimes ask for the name, address, and telephone number of the funeral home, plus the date, if any, of a funeral service.

Usually, only immediate family members qualify for the discount, including husband, wife, children (including adopted/half/step), brothers or sisters, grandparents, grandchildren, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews.

The carriers also often require certain departure and return days, such as leaving within three days of making the reservation, or returning within 60 days.

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