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updated: 3/11/2020 6:21 AM

To fly or not? What coronavirus-related travel waivers airlines are offering

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  • Major airlines are reducing flights at Chicago at O'Hare International Airport and across the country as cases of the coronavirus spread.

    Major airlines are reducing flights at Chicago at O'Hare International Airport and across the country as cases of the coronavirus spread.
    Associated press

 
 

One side effect of COVID-19 is travel anxiety among people unsure whether to cancel or forge ahead with March break trips.

As of Tuesday, most major carriers are allowing passengers to change flights without fees as coronavirus cases become more widespread in the U.S.

On Tuesday, for example, United Airlines announced customers can change tickets issued March 3-31 without fees to a "flight of equal or lesser value" up to a year from the original purchase. The airline was already waiving fees for changing flights on tickets issued on or before March 2 with "original travel dates of March 9 through April 30."

Smaller carriers are also making concessions to the epidemic.

At Spirit Airlines, "guests who have travel concerns due to COVID-19 are eligible to make a one-time free modification by contacting Spirit Guest Care," senior media relations specialist Field Sutton said.

As for outright cancellations, airlines are offering options, but it doesn't mean a refund. Many carriers are allowing flyers to cancel tickets without penalties but the value of the ticket must be used for another flight within one year.

Meanwhile, more flight schedule reductions are expected as travelers hunker down at home and airlines react. And that's not without economic fallout, experts say.

"The decision of the 'big three' -- American, Delta, and United -- to waive fees for cancellations and issue flexible travel vouchers exposes them to huge financial losses," DePaul University aviation expert Joseph Schwieterman said. "They had no choice, but it is going to mean cancellations by many travelers who are 'on the fence.'"

On Tuesday, American Airlines said it would "reduce international capacity for the summer peak by 10%" and decrease domestic flights in April by 7.5% to match demand.

"The past month has been likely nothing I've previously seen in global aviation," said Schwieterman, director of DePaul's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.

"Demand has fallen off a cliff, and the recovery could be painfully slow. Airlines don't have a formula for dealing with all the uncertainty. They have little choice but to ground planes and continuing to improvise."

The federal government recently began conducting enhanced health screenings at 11 airports, including O'Hare, for travelers who have been in Iran or China. Travel bans are in effect for both countries, which have high caseloads of COVID-19.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, on Tuesday, asked the federal government to clarify why it is not conducting enhanced screening of passengers from South Korea and Italy, which also are coronavirus hot spots.