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Bereavement fares fading away

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The Wall Street Journal

Bereavement airfares - those discounted tickets for people who need to fly to a funeral or to visit a sick relative - are quietly disappearing.

The special fares are the latest casualty of the airline industry's troubles. Eliminating bereavement tickets is part of a wider cost-cutting strategy by airlines that has led to the disappearance of everything from in-flight amenities such as meals and blankets to other discounted fares such as those for seniors, students and children.

But while taking pillows and pretzels off planes may annoy travelers, yanking fares aimed at helping grieving passengers strikes some as particularly harsh. Still, some airlines - and even some travelers - say that because fares have dropped so low in recent years, the bereavement deals are no longer needed. Indeed, they are often more expensive than last-minute fares available on discount airlines or via travel Web sites.

In the latest move, Continental Airlines replaced its old 50 percent bereavement discount on full-fare tickets with a 5 percent discount on fares under $499 one-way, and a 10 percent discount on fares over $500 one-way. US Airways Group Inc. eliminated all bereavement fares in January.

Northwest Airlines is now requiring travelers who request bereavement fares to sign up for its WorldPerks program on the spot. Alaska Airlines, meanwhile, has reduced the discount it gives to 25 percent from 50 percent off full-fare walk-up tickets.

All this started when major carriers started copying the fare systems of low-cost airlines over the past two years.

Delta Air Lines eliminated domestic bereavement fares last year as part of an overhaul of its fare structure. Air Canada, owned by ACE Aviation Holdings Inc., also abandoned them last year due to lack of demand, according to a spokesman.

With the disappearance of bereavement fares, fliers aren't only losing potential discounts, they are losing flexibility, too. Bereavement tickets typically allow fliers to change the time and dates of their flights as often as they wish, with no penalty. That kind of flexibility is particularly crucial for travelers who don't know when they need to be someplace for a surgery or funeral. Without bereavement fares, travelers who need to change their tickets multiple times can be hit with steep fees. At UAL Corp.'s United Airlines, for example, the cost to change a ticket is $100, plus the difference in the fare.

The new policies are catching some travelers off-guard. When Erik Schwiebert found out that Delta had eliminated bereavement fares, he took his business elsewhere. The 32-year-old software developer from Seattle, needed to get to central Pennsylvania for his grandfather's funeral last year and had an existing $150 credit on Delta that he wanted to use. "Delta had gotten rid of bereavement fares but I didn't know it. They wanted over $1,000 for their cheapest ticket with fixed travel dates, so I flew on United instead. United sold me a flexible bereavement fare for about $620," he says.

A Delta spokesman says the carrier's walk-up fares are competitive within the industry, and in most cases SimpliFares - its new fare plan - are less expensive and do not require the paperwork and documentation that are traditionally required for bereavement fares.

Other major carriers are making it harder - and more expensive - for last-minute travelers to trade in their miles for an emergency trip. AMR Corp.'s American Airlines last December instituted a $100 "expedite fee" for members of its frequent-flier program who want to redeem miles for travel in under six days. (On American, there still are bereavement fares, but they can't be booked online and thus incur a $10 telephone booking fee.) United Airlines announced that it will be adding a similar $75 mileage expedite fee starting this fall for travel ticketed six days or less before departure.

The airlines say there are now much better ways to get last-minute deals than with bereavement fares. Discount carriers and travel Web sites often have low-cost last-minute fares. And, over the past couple of years, the pricing on so-called legacy carriers has moved much closer to the fares seen on low-cost carriers, partly because of increased competition on a growing number of domestic routes.

Dave Messing, a Continental spokesman, says his airline changed its bereavement policy after seeing regular ticket prices fall so much in recent years. "The 50 percent discounts that were offered in the past only pertained to full-price tickets. We changed the policy this month to have a 5 percent to 10 percent discount on any fare because, as fares have declined and many of the restrictions on discount tickets were eliminated, the 50 percent discount was not useful," he says.

Savvy travelers are used to looking for last-minute packages from online travel companies or bidding sites such as Priceline. Sometimes, buying an air-and-hotel or air-and-car package from a last-minute broker like Site59, owned by Sabre Holdings Corp.'s Travelocity can yield a cheaper price than the lowest regular airfare alone.

Still, some travelers are put off by the changes, no matter how small. Joshua Abelson, a 41-year-old educational administrator from New York, was surprised to be asked to pay American's telephone booking fee when he called up to access their bereavement fares after a close friend's death. The fares are not available for purchase online and thus can be accessed only by phone. "I had just two days to get to Boston, you'd assume they'd waive the handling fee in a situation like that," he says.

A potentially maddening aspect of the changing landscape is how variable the airlines' policies have become. The airlines that still have bereavement fares apply different policies to their use partly to protect themselves against fraud. In order to access a bereavement fare, airlines often ask for the name and number of the attending physician or funeral-home director. American, for instance, doesn't give retroactive bereavement fares to people who've flown full price and want to apply for the discount once they return home, but Continental will allow this if the traveler in question produces a copy of the death certificate or hospital bill.

Most airlines allow only immediate family to get bereavement fares, but definitions vary. American, for example, gives its agents broad enough discretion to allow close friends of the deceased or seriously ill to get the special fares if the situation warrants and is verifiable.

Other airlines qualify "bereavement" fares as incidences when a death has occurred, and "medical emergency" fares as situations when a family member requires hospitalization or hospice care.

Some fliers say they miss the old fares. Nicholas Menaker, a 37-year-old technology consultant from Menlo Park, Calif., valued the flexibility of bereavement tickets. "I used a bereavement fare for when my mother was having a major surgery, we weren't sure when the surgery was going to be, when it would finish, how long to recover, etc. Travel is hectic and costly enough, it is really nice not to have to get hit with a fee or fare change every time you need to make a change due to an event like death or major surgery of a parent," he says.

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