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Go to China or Else! (12 April 2003)

When doctors and international agencies are telling people not to go to China, because of the danger of SARS, imagine finding out that canceling the trip is so expensive it makes you hesitate. That's what happened to me.

On March 30 I went to San Francisco on American Airlines. On April 3 I was supposed to travel on American Airlines to Beijing, China, via Tokyo. Susbsequently I was going return to Tokyo for 8 days in Japan, and then come home to Boston. It was all part of one long trip.

On April 2 the MIT travel doctor told me that people should not anywhere in China unless it was essential. The Chinese government said that SARS was not spreading outside Kuangdong, but the doctor said that the Chinese government was lying. (The Chinese government later admitted that it had been lying and that SARS was spreading in Beijing.) That evening I called American Airlines to cancel the flights between Tokyo and China. They did not say it would cost me anything to change. At the same time I also postponed my departure to April 11. However, I was sleepy, and later was not sure if I had chosen April 11 or April 12. So on April 10 I called to double check the date.

I was surprised to be told that I owed almost $700 for not taking the two additional flights from Japan to China and back. American Airlines said that the fare to Japan alone is higher than the fare to Japan and China.

(I had called on March 31 to investigate the options, and on that occasion they told me they would charge me over $800 for not going to China. At that time I changed nothing. When on April 2/3 the agent said nothing about charging me for the change, I assumed that they had decided to behave more sensibly because WHO had just issued a travel warning telling people not to go to China.)

In effect, I was charged extra for not going to China.

This is a danger to public health. I managed to get reimbursed for the extra fee, but there are surely people who cannot get reimbursed and would be hard-pressed to pay $700 extra. People who would go to China, despite the risk, because they cannot afford not to go.

Someone might get sick, even infect others, because he couldn't afford not to go.

The airline agents are very slippery. The first agent I spoke to on April 10 kept saying "I was not privy to your conversation, but the records clearly say this charge was recorded on April 3." Eventually I said, "The records are what American Airlines said to itself. What it said to me did not mention an additional charge." Then she transferred me to a supervisor. The supervisor persistently denied that American was charging people for not going to China. He kept repeating that they were waiving the usual change fee--which, though true, is beside the point. That was another extra charge that they might have put on but did not. The fact is, in order not to go to China, I had to pay $692 extra. They made me pay for not going to China.

It is true that they could have made it even more. Air fares are absurd and arbitrary; the airlines can make any trip cost anything whatever for anyone in particular. American chose, through the fares it set, to make people pay not to go to China.