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American Airlines ends bereavement fares

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(CNN) -- The bereavement fare was once the airline industry's gift to the traveler, an acknowledgement that a customer was flying for the saddest of reasons: a medical emergency or death in the family.

The last thing anyone wanted to worry about was the cost of an airplane ticket. And so many airlines offered discounts to help ease the pain of the journey.

Not so much anymore.

In the wake of its merger with US Airways, American Airlines this week became the latest major U.S. airline to end its policy of offering bereavement fares. US Airways didn't offer the special fares before the merger, and American's new chief executive officer, Douglas Parker, came from the ranks of US Airways.

"We remain committed to doing all we can to relieve the burden of travel for our customers in times of need. With the advent of more choices, lower cost carriers and larger networks, the industry has started to move away from bereavement fares because walk-up fares are generally lower than in the past, and customers now have more opportunities to find affordable fares at the last minute," American spokesman Matt Miller said in a statement.

"American is moving toward that industry trend and the airline offers customers changeable and refundable options with the ability to apply future reservations to bereavement travel without change fees. We believe this policy is a cost-effective solution for customers in need of bereavement travel."

Except for possibly waiving the change fee, the new policy doesn't sound so different from what American offers other customers.

But not every carrier is going the way of American, at least not yet. Delta Air Lines and United Airlines are keeping their current bereavement policies in place.

Before the US Airways-American merger was approved last year, Parker, then the US Airways CEO, testified before Congress that consumers would benefit from such consolidation. "By putting these two airlines together we're able to provide better service, more efficient service, to consumers," Parker said.

It remains to be seen if consumers will agree with his sentiments, but American isn't breaking new ground with this particular policy change.

Discount carriers Southwest Airlines (and its AirTran brand) and JetBlue Airways have never offered bereavement fares.

"Offering bereavement or emergency fares would make it necessary to offset these discounts by charging higher ticket prices and reducing the amount of sale fares we currently offer," Southwest spokesman Dan Landson said.

Southwest doesn't charge fees to change an existing reservation, just the price difference between the current and new tickets, Landson said.

Frequent travelers know that better fares can usually be found online for last-minute emergency travel, according to travel blogger Johnny "Jet" DiScala. That's why he said the change won't have much of an impact.

"It does make the airlines look heartless," DiScala said. "I've known people who didn't travel to a loved one's funeral because they couldn't afford the last-minute ticket."

Consumers Union aviation consultant William McGee, who testified before Congress last year on the potential impact of the USAirways-American merger, said he isn't surprised by the policy change.

"It's a natural outgrowth of a shrinking industry since consolidation leads to fewer choices, higher fares, and less service," McGee wrote via e-mail. "Unfortunately, consumers should expect this trend to continue as the domestic airline industry rapidly consolidates through mergers and acquisitions."

Still, Delta and United remain holdouts.

Delta's bereavement policy, which "offers additional flexibility on the best published fare," lists the documentation required and the types of relatives who qualify on its website. The airline reminds customers that lower promotional fares may be available through its website or airline reservations service.

United offers a 5% discount on one-way and round-trip fares in the event of the death or serious illness (requiring hospitalization or hospice care) of an immediate family member. Its website lists the airline's requirements to qualify for the airfare.

Five percent off a $1,000 ticket still isn't much -- $50 -- so it's possible that consumers would still be better off searching online for the best deals.

But even with such a small benefit as United's, maybe it's the thought that airlines recognize their grieving customers that counts.

CNN first learned about this story via Twitter.

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