Flying just isn’t what it used to be. It’s a strange new world of mandatory masks, temperature screenings and airlines on the verge of bankruptcy. So what are the guidelines for air travel after the pandemic?
Some changes, like new airline refund policies and mandatory face coverings, are widely known. Others aren’t. And it’s these unpublicized shifts — happening quietly behind the scenes — that suggest passengers have an advantage that they haven’t had in years.
This is how has air travel changed since the pandemic?
But first, let’s talk about the changes you’ve probably noticed. When it comes to air travel, here’s what’s different since the pandemic:
Ticket change policies are more flexible. If you cancel a flight, you don’t have to pay a change fee. If you accept a flight voucher, you may be able to use it as much as two years from the date your booked your original ticket.
Screening is touchless. The TSA has adjusted its screening procedures to eliminate contact with passengers, and some airlines are also temperature-screening their passengers.
Masks are mandatory. Although there’s no federal rule that requires passengers to wear masks, many airlines are requiring them as a matter of policy.
Cabin service has been reduced. Meal and drink service has been cut on many flights. Your flight attendant is more likely to hand you a bottle of water in a plastic bag than to offer you a can of soda.
These changes are fairly minor, and in some cases, for the better. Airline change fees have become punitive in the last decade. The pandemic brought them back down to earth. And the TSA was getting a little too touchy with its poking, prodding and pat-downs.
But the guidelines for air travel that really matter are the ones no one talks about. That’s because few people know about them.
Almost everything is negotiable
One thing that has largely escaped the attention of the flying public: Everything is negotiable.
Consider ticket refunds. The rules are clear: If your airline cancels your flight, you get a full refund. But if you cancel the flight because you’re concerned about getting infected, you get a voucher.
Unless you’re Beth Cooper-Zobott. She had to cancel her United Airlines flight from Chicago to Toronto in August after the border closed. Cooper-Zobott and her sisters were flying to Canada to see the Chicago Cubs play the Toronto Blue Jays.
Her sisters received a flight credit, but she persisted.
“I felt as though it was a true force majeure situation and that United would have to offer a refund,” says Cooper-Zobott, an event planner from Bartlett, Ill.
She reached out to United on Facebook and was surprised by the answer.
“Looking closely at the entry requirements [for Canada], we can request to refund your ticket back to the original form of payment as you would face a 14-day quarantine upon arrival,” a representative told her.
And just like that, United refunded her $500 ticket.
Guideline for air travel #1: Change is the only constant
Post-pandemic air travel changes so quickly, it’s hard to keep up.
“The most effective strategies for solving travel problems in the pandemic have proven to be watching, waiting, and keeping an eye on ever-changing policies,” says Louisa Gehring, a travel advisor with Virtuoso-affiliated Gehring Travel. “If you’re sensing you’ll need to cancel or reschedule your trip now but the cancellation terms aren’t yet flexible for your planned dates of travel, wait. And keep an eye on how those policies change.”
I couldn’t keep track of all the changes in the first few weeks after the pandemic started. But even now, airlines continue to make smaller, unannounced adjustments. They’re tweaking their contracts of carriage — the legal agreements between you and the carrier — usually to their advantage. United Airlines’ many changes of its refund rule comes to mind. Don’t assume you know a rule, even if you’re sure you do.
Guideline for air travel #2: You get what you negotiate
I deal with refund questions almost every day at my nonprofit consumer advocacy site. In fact, I just had one woman with a problem identical to Cooper-Zobott’s. It was a no-win situation on LOT, the Polish carrier. She couldn’t fly to Europe because of the travel ban, and the airline wouldn’t even respond to her.
She used the same strategy as Cooper-Zobott. Then she posted a private message on the LOT Facebook page. Within a few minutes, a representative offered her a full refund.
I’ve seen this time and again. The old “no waivers, no favors” attitude went out the window during the pandemic. It’s been replaced with “you get what you negotiate.”
And airlines sure are in a negotiating mood.
Guideline for air travel #3: It’s a buyer’s market for air travel
There’s no telling what else might be on the table, when it comes to flying. That’s because for the first time in a generation, the balance of power has shifted to consumers.
According to the Official Airline Guide (OAG), this week’s domestic airline capacity is just under 56 million passengers — less than half of what it is during low season. It would be naive to think airlines can charge you any fare or fee they want in this kind of market. And although they might try, passengers need to know that they have the upper hand. And they will for a long time to come. We’re talking months, and maybe years.
New air travel rule #4: Power plays work now
Not so long ago, airlines didn’t care who you were. Flashing a platinum card when you were trying to get a silly free waived would only invite guffaws from the ticket agents. Today, you can do the power play.
But there’s a nice way to do it and a not-so-nice way. Gentle negotiation from a position of strength is Clark Mitchell’s preferred method. He’s a travel advisor for Strong Travel Services.
“The best way to solve a problem with a vendor or supplier is to leverage your affiliation,” he explains. By that, he means using the power of your travel agency buying consortium to get what you want. A consortium like Virtuoso, to which his agency belongs, does hundreds of millions of dollars a year in business with a company.
You can also invoke Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations, which say if an airline cancels your flight, you deserve a refund within seven working days if you paid by credit card. But DOT regulations are not being evenly enforced, and airlines are pushing to weaken consumer protection laws in Europe, claiming the extraordinary circumstances mean they shouldn’t have to issue refunds.
“These short-term circumstances can’t be an excuse for long-term changes in passenger rights,” Christian Nielsen, AirHelp’s chief legal officer, noted. “Particularly not in times when one of the key focuses for aviation to survive is to win back passenger trust.”
Don’t forget the nuclear option
The not-so-nice way is what I call the nuclear option. It leverages the power of your bank and federal law to extract money from an airline and return it to you, as I explained in a recent Washington Post column. And it’s particularly useful for Canadian and European airlines that falsely claim they can’t offer refunds for flights they canceled. Under Department of Transportation regulations, they not only can, but they must.
And if they don’t cooperate? You can file a chargeback on your credit card and ask your bank to refund you. I’ve seen this power play work many times since the pandemic started.
The important guidelines for air travel are largely unseen. Sure, some airline policies have changed. Screening is a little different, and you have to wear a mask on the plane. But the real changes have happened behind the scenes, where the balance of power has shifted toward you.
My suggestion: Take advantage of it while it lasts.
So here’s the big question
How long do you think the winds of the free market will blow in our favor, fellow passengers? A few more months? Or years? Or will some airlines not survive this at all?
I’d love to get your thoughts. Comments are open.