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Who pays if SARS worries lead to a changed itinerary?

Airlines may let you rebook; tour companies and insurers are more problematic. Not to mention your employer.

May 25, 2003|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

Although much remains unknown about the epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in China and other places, one fact is apparent: The outbreak raises unique, vexing dilemmas for travelers.

Take the saga of Jan Schneider of South Pasadena.

In February she booked a three-week family vacation to China for July. After SARS hit the news a few weeks later, "we were prepared to hang on, hoping for the best," she says.

On May 1 her husband's company announced that employees returning from SARS-affected areas would be barred from work for two weeks. They could take the time as vacation or unpaid leave.

"That was the deal breaker," Jan says. Her husband, Morris, faced losing two weeks' pay because the trip would use up his vacation time.

The family decided to cancel the trip, not an easy task.

The company they had booked for a Yangtze River cruise wasn't returning deposits but would apply them to another date if the Schneiders traveled by Dec. 31. But they didn't want to go then because their son would be in school.

Access America, the company from which the family had purchased trip insurance, said it wouldn't cover them for the cancellation.

The Schneiders faced losing $1,245 in deposits and insurance premiums. (They hadn't yet bought their airline tickets.)

Their story raises several SARS-related questions and issues for travelers. Among them:

Can I change airline tickets without penalty? Get trip deposits back? The answer to the first is "Maybe, if you act soon"; to the second, "Probably not."

Airlines have various policies. As of last week, United was allowing customers with tickets issued by May 5 for travel by June 30 involving Taiwan or Beijing to postpone travel without the usual change fees. You must notify United before the original departure date or by May 31, whichever comes first. Northwest set a June 1 deadline to make changes for tickets bought through May 8 for travel through Aug. 31 to China, Taiwan or Hong Kong; rebooked travel must be completed by Dec. 15.

Cathay Pacific set a May 31 deadline for changes on tickets from the U.S. to Asia bought by April 17 for travel by May 31; rebooked travel must be completed by Dec. 31.

Each tour company also has its own policy on customers who back out of trips because of SARS concerns. Many decline cash refunds of deposits (unless, of course, the company canceled the trip) but will let you apply them to a future trip. Some set a deadline, such as Dec. 31, for the rebooked travel.

If a cruise line declines to board you because of SARS concerns, however, you will likely get a refund. The International Council of Cruise Lines recently advised ships to deny boarding to passengers who had visited China, Hong Kong or Taiwan in the previous 10 days, regardless of whether they show symptoms.

Does my trip cancellation insurance cover me? Probably not. Such policies typically exclude epidemics as covered reasons for canceling a trip. They also typically won't pay based on a change in personal plans -- that is, if a person decides not to take a trip, even if that decision is based on fear of travel.

Jan Schneider said "epidemic" was No. 13 on a list of 16 exclusions in her 21-page policy from Access America. When she bought the policy, she was worried about terrorist attacks -- "they had a whole section on that" -- and was relieved to find that situation was covered, within limits, of course.

Beth Godlin, senior vice president at Access America, told me that in a case like the Schneiders', the reason to deny the claim is that the policy excludes business reasons; the Schneiders canceled their trip because of an employer's policy.

What are my obligations to an employer?

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of last week, was not advising businesses to quarantine people returning from SARS-affected areas. Such travelers should monitor their health for 10 days but "need not limit their activities and should not be excluded from work, meetings or other public areas, unless fever or respiratory symptoms develop," according to the CDC's Web site,

This advice is based on the theory that SARS has about a 10-day incubation. Although there is no test that provides early diagnosis of SARS, there is also no evidence that people can spread it before they show symptoms or that casual contact such as occurs in a workplace poses that danger, CDC spokeswoman Karen Hunter said last week.

Nevertheless, some employees and employers remain nervous about the unknown.

In dealing with SARS, businesses face a delicate balancing act between rights and responsibilities, says lawyer Frank Cronin, a partner in Snell & Wilmer in Irvine who advises management on employment law.

On one hand, under Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules, businesses must provide a safe workplace, he says. On the other hand, federal laws require them to "reasonably accommodate" someone with a disability.

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