If you’re too sick to fly, you may have to pay

ATLANTA — Passengers are encouraged not to fly if they are sick, but it could cost you if you follow that advice.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people do not travel if they are sick, and that they stay home and avoid travel for at least 24 hours after fever or fever-like symptoms are gone.

It also advises airlines that if a passenger or crew member is displaying flu-like symptoms prior to flight, that person should not board the aircraft.

Delta Air Lines and United Airlines will charge a fee of $150 to make changes to the itinerary of nonrefundable discounted coach tickets prior to departure. Some carriers make exceptions if a passenger is sick — and has proof. Policies vary by carrier and situation.

Full-fare tickets are generally refundable and don’t carry fees if you change your itinerary.

Here’s a primer on different airline policies and other options you may have to protect the full value of your ticket if you have to cancel or change your plans because of illness.

  • AirTran Airways doesn’t charge a fee if a passenger has a documented case of the swine flu and cancels or changes their travel plans, but that policy only applies to that specific illness. Spokesman Christopher White said the airline’s $75 change fee would apply if you cancel or change your flight for another reason.

    American Airlines says it can deny boarding to a passenger who has a communicable disease that can be transmitted to others onboard an aircraft. Ultimately, it’s a judgment call for the airline, which has staff physicians it can consult if there is a question at the airport about a passenger’s symptoms, spokesman Tim Smith said. If boarding is denied by American under those circumstances, the full value of the person’s ticket will generally be preserved. However, if passengers choose not to travel because of an illness or for other reasons, then they will have to pay a change fee if they bought a lower- priced nonrefundable ticket.

    Delta works with passengers who are ill and unable to travel on a case-by-case basis. When a doctor’s note is supplied, Delta will waive its change fee, though its policy states that travel must be completed within one year from the purchase date of the original ticket.

    Not to worry on Southwest Airlines. It doesn’t charge fees for anyone who changes or cancels a flight. A credit for the cost of the ticket can be used within 12 months of the cancellation, according to the airline.

    United will waive the fee to change a ticket if a passenger is too sick to fly, but the passenger will have to present a doctor’s note.

    “We do keep an eye on those who are visibly sick and will call for medical assistance on the ground and in the air to ensure we do what’s in the best interest of everyone,” spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said.

    Some credit card companies offer travel cancellation insurance for airline tickets purchased using their cards. Citi offers trip cancellation/interruption coverage as a feature on some of its cards. In the event you are prevented from taking or continuing a trip, you would be eligible to receive up to $1,500 in coverage.

  • Alaska Airlines offers travel insurance when passengers purchase tickets on its Web site. The fee, through partner Access America, is determined based on several factors, including the price of your ticket. For instance, it would cost about $26 for a $500 flight between Atlanta and Seattle.

    The fee provides coverage for your nonrefundable air ticket costs, up to $3,000, if you have to cancel your trip due to reasons like medical emergencies or bad weather.

    That would more than cover any change fees an airline might charge, giving you peace of mind when you choose not to fly because you are sick.

    “The number one issue is getting well enough to travel,” said Robert Mann, an airline industry consultant in Port Washington, N.Y. “All else is secondary.”

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