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The worldwide swine flu pandemic has resulted in a host of rash statements and irresponsible reporting, raising the panic level of already nervous passengers to even higher levels.
For example, here's what the Vice President of the United States, Joseph Biden, said. "I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now. It's not that it's going to Mexico, it's that you're in a confined aircraft; when one person sneezes it goes all the way through the aircraft ... If you're out in the middle of a field and someone sneezes that's one thing. If you're in a closed aircraft ... it's a different thing."
Now most readers have flown on a plane. All passengers understand that while the air is recycled there is no all-powerful sneeze that races up one side of the plane, crosses over, and comes all the way back the other side.
Fortunately the US Transportation Department, coupled with the World Health Organization, quickly refuted this hypothesis. While strongly recommending against unnecessary travel to Mexico, all parties have agreed that flying is completely safe.
I would, however, add one point that crops up all the time among customers. Flying when you are sick is neither intelligent nor considerate of the passengers sitting near you on the plane. If you wouldn't elect to go to work with your ailment, then taking a flight seems irresponsible.
Passengers have raised concerns about travel to the United States. An initial French proposal to ban travel to the US was, fortunately, rejected by the European Union though it did cause consternation among European fliers.
How have airlines been coping with the outbreak? Initially they reacted in a visceral manner, permitting clients to rebook their flights for up to one year without a penalty. They were hopeful that the problem would disappear, so full refunds were not even an option during the first week of the crisis.
Continental Airlines took a more intelligent approach based on huge cancellations. They reduced, by over 50%, flights from the US to all Mexican destinations for the month of May. This was done by reducing both the number of flights as well as capacity, using smaller aircraft on their routes. This downsizing has affected only 2% of their entire flight network.
US Airways cut close to 40% of its flights scheduled for May while United reduced its capacity to 60%.
United Airlines was the first airline to offer full refunds on all travel to Mexico for departures through May 31st.
I do expect most airlines to follow suit, though historically airlines find it easier to simply allow passengers to rebook without cost rather than give a full refund. Unfortunately, until a country, be it the US or Israel or Great Britain, actually forbids travel to Mexico, no airline can be forced to refund the money to clients who cancel their tickets. What all airlines don't realize is that the poor public relations message this sends is an unknown factor.
Most travel insurance policies do not cover such losses. While most do have a trip cancellation clause, it is based wholly on the traveler or immediate family being hospitalized, not on his or her desire simply not to fly. However it's worth checking one's policy to see if a government issued travel advisory would lead to some compensation.
Bear in mind that if you can keep your head when all around you are losing theirs, you will always come out ahead. Be cautious about your travel plans; don't get into a panic until you obtain as much information as possible. And for heaven's sake, don't be like the client who just asked me, "Is it safe to fly to the US?"
Trust me, when it's your time to go, there is little you can do to prevent it.
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at firstname.lastname@example.org