Airlines Are Refusing to Refund Tickets to Zika-Infested Areas When Customers Find Out They’re Pregnant

For months the threat of the Zika virus has loomed over women in Zika-infected areas, women who have traveled to Zika-infected areas, and even women who have been in contact with people who have been to Zika-infected areas. The virus causes severe birth defects in a fetus when a pregnant woman contracts it, and the full ramifications of infection are still being studied, but so far they appear to be even worse than previously assumed. NPR reports that a special report just released on infants with Zika infections shows that microcephaly is “just the tip of the iceberg” of what Zika can do to a fetus’ brain.

Women who live in Zika-infected areas are living in fear. Women who live in areas without Zika have been advised not to travel to Zika-infected areas if they are pregnant, and to try not to become pregnant for an extended period after visiting. That can be easier said than done, though. Airlines have very strict rules about when customers can and cannot cancel or reschedule their tickets, but one would think there would be extenuating circumstances for customers who become pregnant and are thus ordered by doctors not to travel to places where it’s possible to contract the Zika virus. Apparently, however, there are not.

A 28-year-old British woman named Alice Rowland is complaining because in March she booked tickets to visit her partner’s ill mother in Dominica. They were scheduled to fly to Dominica through Florida on August 16, and they spent around $2,120 on tickets from Air France and Jet Blue, though they booked the tickets through one of those online discount air travel vendors that compare prices on different airlines and deliver the cheapest options.

Later in March, the first instances of Zika were reported in Dominica. A couple months after that, Rowland got pregnant.

Rowland’s doctor told her not to go to Dominica while pregnant because of the risk of contracting Zika, which can cause severe birth defects and brain damage in a fetus. He also said Rowland’s partner should not travel to Dominica to visit his mother alone, because Zika can be transmitted sexually. A man who travels to an area where Zika is pregnant and is bitten by a mosquito might show no symptoms and feel flne, but could transmit the Zika to his pregnant partner upon returning.

Rowland and her partner say they’ve been trying to get a refund from the airlines, but the companies won’t accept pregnancy as a reason to cancel with a refund, even with a letter from Rowland’s doctor. The booking company offered to refund them around $300, but says the rest of the refund will not happen because that’s up to the airlines themselves, and the airlines said no.

“In both cases, whilst we understand the customer’s’ frustration, the airlines the customer was due to travel with are making no exceptions for pregnant women who are already booked to travel to Florida,” the company said to the Daily Mail.

Women’s experiences with Zika-related travel cancellations appear to vary from airline to airline. An acquaintance of mine reports that when she discovered she was pregnant just a few weeks before she was meant to fly to the Caribbean for a wedding, the airline she was booked on basically said, “What? Noooo! Do not fly there. Here is all your money back.” (Of course, that did mean that her whole family found out she was pregnant much earlier than she would have liked, because she had to tell them all why she wouldn’t be at the wedding. But it was still better than being stuck with a massive airfare bill.) I did not think to ask what airline she had been booked on, because at the time I just assumed that was what any airline would do.

That was not so, though. Airlines are not kidding around when they sell no-frills airfares through discount sites. In exchange for lower prices, passengers give up amenities, scheduling options, services, and the ability to change or cancel their tickets. One might think that an airline would be a little more flexible than usual in the case of situations like this one, but putting one’s faith in the generosity of large companies is not often rewarded. (There’s always the recourse of publicly shaming a company on Twitter and hoping the negative publicity will force the company to do what you want. That’s often effective, but it’s a pretty crummy facet of modern life that the public Twitter shaming is the only way to get companies to pay attention.}

Zika is expected to be around for several years at least, and this is a public health crisis that can’t be ignored. It might be inconvenient for women who want to travel to Zika-infected areas, and it is annoying for people who might be out a couple thousand dollars in airline travel because of it. But there are millions of women–pregnant and otherwise–who actually live there, and for whom the threat of Zika is a real problem they face every day. The entire population is not going to completely abstain from sex for several years. Nobody really believes that the entire country of Dominica will simply not have babies for the next few years, and babies born with Zika-related health problems will often need care for their entire lives. Zika is going to affect a lot of people for years to come.

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