No Rebooking For People With H1N1 , So, You Know, Good Luck Flying

When I look at flight attendants I do not see mere mortals. I see heroic flying immune systems. When the zombificating superflu does eventually strike, those who survive will no doubt be ruled by former flight attendants and elementary school teachers. In the meantime, they’ll somehow continue working in a “flying petri dish” as some airlines continue to refuse H1N1 as an excuse to rebook.

People are reluctant to pay a fee to keep others healthy. From CNN:

“When people come together, germs can come together too,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

“There are not that many studies about flu spreading on airplanes and trains, but anytime people are close together, there’s a possibility of germs spreading.”

So it may be unsettling to discover that 51 percent of respondents in a recent online poll by TripAdvisor.com would fly while sick with the flu rather than pay a flight rebooking fee. About 2,300 people took part in the survey.

Frequent fliers say the results are disturbing, but not surprising.

“I do think that’s an unfortunate attitude, because the airplane is like a petri dish in the sky,” said Rene Foss, a flight attendant for 25 years and the spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants.

“[But] people really are resistant to paying any extra fees.”

Of the airlines CNN looked into, only Delta let people rebook non-changeable fares with a doctor’s note.

Flying with the flu? Some may be tempted [CNN]
(Photo:The Consumerist)

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  1. shepd says:

    This is a problem with just about all segments of society. Work included. How many employers are going to give you paid time off if you’re sick?

    Not many. So you get presenteeism and more sick people.

    • Starphantom12 says:

      @shepd: That, and when I’m sick AND required to travel, I feel a little vengeful… a little less inclined to keep others from suffering as I am suffering. Misery loves company, y’know? At all other times I try to adhere to Wheaton’s Law.

    • ahleeeshah says:

      The last two employers I’ve had have both provided paid time off, regardless of the reason. The first one was a major company and it did separate vacation time from sick days, but you still got paid if you were sick (you also got a day off for your birthday and major holidays were paid without taking your paid time off as well). My current job is a much smaller company, and it just gives you a pool of PTO hours, but you can use them as you wish. Vacation, sick, mental health day, whatever.

  2. wickedpixel says:

    I flew this past summer and when the woman sitting next to me sat down she said, “sorry, I’ve got a bit of a cold. I’ll try not to breathe on you.” Gee, thanks. two days later I had tonsillitis. Great way to spend a vacation.

    • hi says:

      @wickedpixel: If it’s true that you build up an immunity by getting sick then you should thank the old woman because next time you catch the same thing you won’t get sick… right?

    • TonyK says:

      If someone said this to me, I would press the call button and ask the flight crew for a new seat, for the person who made the comment.

      People should not fly sick. We need to know they are sick or suffering allergies. Her admission she had a “cold” should have grounded her.

  3. NickelMD says:

    Most airlines will let you change or refund your ticket if you are *unable* to fly due to medical illness. I have completed many forms for people to do just this.

    And in my licensed medical opinion, people with influenza (and other airborne communicable diseases) are *un-fucking-able* to fly. Period. I may provide to the airline the symptoms they have which would render them medically unable to fly, but I’ll be damed if I will ok someone to fly who by doing so might endanger another person’s life.

    But to be honest you don’t even need to fudge in most cases. For example H1N1 can cause hypoxia which would be quite dangerous to someone up at altitude with a lower pO2. Oops – can’t safely fly.

    • subtlefrog says:

      @NickelMD: Agreed totally – but then, many people lack insurance to see the doctor to get the paperwork, don’t know about the paperwork, or have insurance but still need to pay the doctor a hefty sum for the paperwork.

      • NickelMD says:

        @subtlefrog: Don’t know about the paperwork is lack of doing your homework. Lack insurance is a travesty and an embarrassment to the entire US. (That’s why my hippy clinic sees everyone regardless of ability to pay or insurance status… maybe someday if congress gets their collective heads out of their asses we’ll break even.)

        But if your doctor charges you ‘a hefty sum’ to complete a form that takes 2 minutes to complete during your 15 minute visit, you may need another doctor (unless the reason is that you want to do 30 minutes of other work in your 15 minutes *and* complete the form… having a doable goal for your visit helps.) Now if you ask for the form to be completed outside of the visit a reasonable charge is, well… reasonable. Your insurance doesn’t pay for phone calls, completing forms, or pretty much anything else unless you haul yourself into your doctor’s office.

  4. winshape says:

    I’m surprised it is only 51%. I can only imagine that the other 49% misunderstood the question and figured it would be too hard to get out of bed to go to the actual airport.

    • TonyK says:

      Probably the 51% that were being honest.

      I’ve had my wife re-book her travel plans when she is not well. We do our best to be considerate of others. Just wish they would extended the courtesy.

      Take care,

  5. Kimaroo - 100% Pure Natural Kitteh says:

    I had seen a story on my local news last month about the TSA screening people to see if they may have H1N1, and if they determined it so, they wouldn’t be allowed to fly.

    The story didn’t go too much in depth, but they had thermometers and were asking health questions.

    This was supposed to be at the Hobby Airport in Houston. I hadn’t heard anything about this since then though.

    If this really is true, I am very afraid for our privacy, and I would be one pissed off consumer if a TSA agent decided I was “too sick to fly” and then the airline wouldn’t rebook.

    • LadySiren is murdering her kids with HFCS and processed cheese says:

      Okay, there’s no way I’d let a thermometer-wielding TSA agent near me. Given the general lack of competence and caring I’ve personally witnessed from TSA personnel, I wouldn’t trust them to put it in the right orifice (my mouth, you sickos).

  6. theSuperman says:

    I just flew last Wednesday, and a few days later I come down with a cold. Coincidence? Although the person I sat next to was my Dad, so I dont think he got me sick.

    • Ebriosa says:

      That’s the thing about them being “flying petri dishes” – you can everyone’s germs to some extent because of the recirculated air.

  7. Tim says:

    If you’re paranoid, bring hand sanitizer (3 o.z. or less in a 1-qt. plastic bag) and a mask.

    Rebooking fees are usually around $150 per reservation. If I can physically get out of bed and drag myself to the airport, I’m getting on that plane. I’ll bring some DayQuil and a mask, but as long as the airline discourages me from rebooking, I’m going to fly.

    • babyruthless says:

      @TCama: Standard surgical masks will protect other people from your germs, but they won’t keep other peoples’ germs away from you–the gapping at the side is more than sufficient to let the germs in. You need a tighter-fitting mask, similar to the ones used on construction sites if you want to keep germs away.

  8. Ronin-Democrat says:

    and you can’t even get a GIANT can of lysol past the security checkpoint to spray your area of contamination..

  9. Snakeophelia says:

    I came down with pneumonia less than 24 hours after flying back from SC on a very small jet this September. I’d’ve paid extra to make sure THAT person wasn’t on the plane, either near me or before me and breathing on my seat.

    • Tim says:

      @Snakeophelia: Would you have paid that person’s rebooking fee?

    • formergr says:

      @Snakeophelia: It would take a good bit longer than 24 hours to incubate and then come down with pneumonia, so there is no way you could it from the flight back from SC.

      Though depending on when you flew *to* SC, then it’s entirely possible you caught it on that flight (usually about 3-5 days post exposure).

  10. jdmba says:

    People have shown they will go through the OPPOSITE to fly. Reports surrounding airports which scan people’s temperature were showing that people would take fever reducers before reporting to their flight.

    This is a country of ‘me first’. For those who are sick, they are not going to get sicker (well, at least not with what they already have), so they have no reason to take an inconvenience of changing their flight or their behavior.

    Colds, H1N1, unruly children … it’s all the same. Not THEIR problem.

  11. soloudinhere says:

    Hand sanitizer does exactly zero to help you.

    For a number of reasons. First being that you kill off the good bacteria on your skin that can help keep you from getting sick.

    But the second is, you’re most likely to absorb the virus or bacteria through the mucous membranes in your nose, mouth, and eyes from being in contaminated air. Most of these illenesses are spread by airborne contact.

    Add in some recycled air, and everyone on that plane will be sitting in that one person’s germs all day. It’s really selfish to fly if you KNOW you are contagious.

    I wonder what will happen when some high risk person catches H1N1 after flying. I see a very large lawsuit.

  12. sassbrown74 says:

    I see nobody paid too much attention to the bit about their not being many studies about flu spreading on airplanes. Travel, particularly across time zones, places stresses on the human body, which lowers one’s immune system. It just as likely that this is why people find themselves becoming sick more often after flying, rather than some sort of increased risk of transmission in the air.

  13. AnxiousDemographic says:

    “People are reluctant to pay a fee to keep others healthy”

    Isn’t the problem really that the airlines force people to pay a fee?

    This is a variation on the private sector (airlines) shedding risk at the expense of the public (customers).

    • Powerlurker says:

      @AnxiousDemographic:

      They don’t “force” people to pay a change fee. The change fee is something you as a passenger accept in exchange for a cheaper ticket. Check out the price of a refundable fare without a change fee some time. You could typically rebook your ticket (with the $150 change fee) three or four times before you make up the difference.

  14. SaraFimm says:

    I’d say flight insurance and a medical note from the doctor about your illness should cover your flight change problem. Period.

  15. Cant_stop_the_rock says:

    Glad I’m not flying anytime soon.

  16. TonyK says:

    My concern is for people kicked off flights are not “sick” but suffering from normal allergies. Flight crews are not medical professionals. But everyday flight crews “kick” people off flights, leaving them stranded without their luggage in strange cities. Instead, why not give that person a mask to wear of it is only a few sniffles.

    And traverlers, DO NOT WEAR PERFUME OR COLOGNE. People are allergic to different things and perfume and cologne can cause an episode. Be respectful of other people and take in to account that the world does not revolve around YOU.

    Take care,

  17. MadPetesGirl says:

    DON’T get me started on this line! While on a trip to Seattle, my (four-year-old) son came down with a bad case of H1N1. We called Sun Country airline two days before the flight to try and change the flight back to MSP. My husband talked to several representatives but could not get the $150/ticket change fee reduced or forgiven. When he pointed out that we could just show up, he was told that even though my son was hacking like a 50-year smoker and bright red from fever *he would not be prevented from boarding the plane*. My husband restated what he heard to make sure and the representative reiterated that no one would prevent my son from boarding the flight.

    We did have a note from a doctor and were told that would not help. We had not purchased flight insurance and so we would have to pay the $300 to fly later in the week.

    I will grant that in retrospect I wish I would have purchased the insurance. I haven’t in the past because it has never been an issue. I have found most airlines willing to work it out, within reason. In the last year I haven’t purchased it because I am also now paying to check bags and it is getting really expensive. So I took a risk.

    Still. I thought it was pretty poor unsympathetic customer service. We have flown Sun Country often in the past because we wanted to support a “local” airline. However, we will not use them anymore. We usually can find the same fare on one of the other airlines.

    It was a sad experience for me, but I couldn’t in good conscience take my son on the plane and expose others. So our Christmas took a little hit financially, but all’s well that ends well.

  18. hotdogsunrise says:

    @Powerlurker: But refundable fares are not only extremely expensive, but are limited per flight. For most people, this is simply not an option.

    Travel insurance makes the most sense. Although, travel insurance can also be a gamble. This is especially so if the person doesn’t purchase travel insurance, but goes with some scammy company instead.

    Research, research, research.

  19. lannister80 says:

    @Powerlurker: BS. Flying while sick doesn’t inconvenience *me* at all. Why would I buy insurance if that’s the case? That’s like paying all your neighbor’s insurance premiums just in case you put a baseball through his window.

    Now, if the airline said “If you’re sick, then you can reschedule for free”, I’d do it. But I’m not going to do it out of the goodness of my heart. Not with that much $$ on the line.

    So, *healthy* people should have to buy the travel insurance. Then, when they’re stuck next to someone who’s sick, THEY can reschedule, not the sick person.

  20. NickelMD says:

    @Powerlurker: But the problem is that since most people are cheap they don’t buy optional insurance or refundable fares, the airlines are creating a public health hazard by allowing people to ‘opt out’ of a higher cost. Those who opt out aren’t endangering themselves but others on the plane. Its no different than driving a car without insurance.

    The cost of changing in case of airborne infectious disease should not be an option but should be included in the price of every ticket. In general travel insurance is $10-15/flight (if that) and if everyone were required to pay that surcharge far fewer people would be endangered.

  21. Tallanvor says:

    @pecan 3.14159265: It’s ridiculous that the airlines are too greedy to understand that their policies encourage people to fly when they’re sick instead of having to pay outrageous fees to change their plans.

    Also, travel insurance only helps so much. –It may cover you in case you get sick just before your trip starts, but as far as I can tell, it generally doesn’t include extra nights in a hotel if you’re too sick to fly home.

  22. hotdogsunrise says:

    @NickelMD: Agreed. And I don’t understand why, if H1N1 is such a big deal, airlines aren’t forced to allow for such changes. If someone is sick, they should be able to change their flight. Period.

    I’ve already read horror stories of people flying with H1N1.

  23. kaceetheconsumer says:

    @pecan 3.14159265: If more people had paid sick leave, including to take care of their sick kids, more would probably stay home when sick.

    I’d even wager that illnesses wouldn’t last as long because even a day of rest can do wonders for getting over a bug.

    But I know a lot of people who either have no sick leave or what they have is so small that if they ever have to use it to take care of a kid, there’s not enough to take care of themselves or vice versa. :(

  24. seishino says:

    All of the travel insurance I’ve seen requires a doctor’s signature if you’re ill. So if you get a cold that day, you’d basically need to go to the emergency room. I know my mother has a 5k dollar yearly deductible, so that’s 500 dollars out of her pocket to get the signature at all. Personally, my insurance is a lot more reasonable, but my PhP is usually booked out weeks in advance.

    Sure, go get a doctor’s note for a cold. While you’re at it, find an airline that never loses your luggage and gives you a free pony.

  25. Winter White says:

    There are numerous studies that have been done that show that most commercially available hand sanitizers are under the minimum 60% alcohol concentration required to kill most microbes and viruses. They also do not work on hands that are dirty (as in visibily soiled).

    Further, most people do not use enough– the CDC guidelines state that you should use enough to thoroughly wet all surfaces of your hands, and if your hands are dry in under 10 seconds, you haven’t used enough. Most commercial sanitizer bottles dispense less than half the proper amount.

    All this adds up to, in the real world, hand sanitizers do not do what they say they do. Sort of like condoms in real world usage.

    I’m glad you’re an epidemiologist and all, but as a microbiologist, I’m fairly confident that I should not be relying on the average person to be properly disinfecting their hands. I can do my own, but I’m still sitting in a complete and utter cesspool of airborne material.

  26. oneandone says:

    I’ve seen travel insurance that requires hospitalization – doctor’s note wasn’t enough for them. Read the fine print & watch out!