Business and vacation travelers are well aware that COVID-19 is causing a lot of disruption to global air travel and many have questions. Since most airline tickets carry penalties for change or cancellation, what happens if the flight doesn’t operate or you just don’t want to go into the “hot zone?” The good news is you don’t necessarily lose the money paid for your ticket if you don’t travel. Airlines often offer change and cancellation waivers; however, they come with very specific restrictions. This is how change and cancellation waivers work.
Reasons for Change and Cancellation Waivers
Airline operations are at the mercy of many factors that are out of the airlines’ control. Winter blizzards and summer thunderstorms can play havoc with airline schedules, creating delays and flight cancellations. Natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and forest fires may impact infrastructure to the degree that the destination can’t accommodate visitors.
Right now (March 2020), COVID-19 is the culprit. In the case of widespread illness, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) issue travel advice which the airlines take into consideration when offering change and cancellation waivers. The airlines are also reducing flight frequencies or canceling flights based on declining demand.
Restrictions on Airline Penalty Waivers
Understandably, large-scale impacts on airline operations have repercussions to the airline’s bottom line. When change and cancellation waivers are offered, the airlines precisely define rules for when they apply. These restrictions include:
- Applicable destinations
- Applicable dates of original ticket issue
- Covered travel dates
- Allowable date range for rescheduled travel
- Allowable conditions for a complete refund
- Waiver expiration date
Each airline designates its own rules and restrictions and updates are extremely fluid, sometimes hourly! For example, an airline may waive change penalties only for destinations designated as Level 3 by the CDC, on tickets issued before February 26, 2020, for travel through May 2020. It’s common to have different waiver rules for different destinations, based on how strongly the place is impacted.
Travel Maestro tip: In response to the rapidly changing coronavirus situation, several airlines, including Delta, United, American, and JetBlue currently offer “peace of mind” travel waivers to all destinations. Applicable ticket-purchase and travel dates vary, as do time limits for requesting refunds. However, these waivers mean that travelers can purchase tickets from these airlines for future travel and not feel pressured to make a go/no-go decision immediately or risk losing money if they cancel.
Distinction Between Change and Cancellation Waivers
It’s also important for travelers to understand the difference between a change penalty waiver and a cancellation penalty waiver. The former doesn’t provide a refund if you don’t travel at all. It does outline the conditions under which you can exchange your ticket for travel at a later date with no penalty.
Often when the airline is forced to completely cancel flights (due to acts of God, civil unrest, or government decree), they will offer full refunds under a cancellation waiver; however, if they fly and you choose not to travel, they may only offer an opportunity to change your reservation to a future date without penalty.
Travel Maestro tip: Be aware that change waivers are not price-guarantees. You will always be expected to pay any increase in airfare between the original purchase price and the price of the new travel dates. If the new price is lower, each airline has its own policy about how lower fare credits may be applied.
Change and cancellation waivers have extremely precise and ironclad rules mandated by the individual airline. Those rules can and do change at any time. It’s always best to let your travel professional handle any exchanges or refunds on your behalf. If you have questions about a ticket you are holding or options for a future travel reservation, ask your Covington travel advisor.