Funeral Industry News

Bereavement Fares Sky High, South Florida Getting Nailed

November 29, 2010

Bereavement Fares Sky High, South Florida Getting Nailed

imageEach day, about 15 dead people fly out of South Florida, taking a one-way trip in a cargo hold to their final resting place.

During the winter months, when snowbirds flock south, the number of decedents jetting home tends to increase.

In Palm Beach County, about 2,600 were flown home last year, more than any other county in the state. Broward was next with about 1,900 and then Miami-Dade, with about 1,250.

In all, about 18,800 dead people were flown out of Florida last year, with about a third taking off from one of South Florida’s three major airports, according to Florida Department of Health records.

Grieving relatives, meanwhile, find last-minute airline tickets an expensive proposition. While some carriers still offer bereavement fares, overall, the airline industry has cut back on any kind of last-minute discounted seats.

“We tried everything, but we really had to pay to make an urgent flight,” said Daniella Swanson, after her aunt died earlier this month. After checking with numerous airlines, Swanson and her brother paid a combined $535 to fly one way on Spirit from Chicago, their hometown, to Fort Lauderdale for the funeral. Her aunt, Susan Madori, a Broward School Board candidate this year, was cremated in South Florida and her ashes were to be shipped back to Chicago.

Bereavement fares tend to be steep because they usually allow flexibility in scheduling a return trip, and sometimes they far exceed full-price tickets.

For instance, to fly from Fort Lauderdale to New York on Delta Air Lines on a recent Tuesday, the bereavement fare was $829, which allowed for an open return trip within 60 days, with the provision that seats are available on the requested flight. Delta’s regular fare on that day would have been $385 if purchased at the last minute. The same seat, purchased two weeks in advance, cost about $160.

“It’s not meant to be a bargain,” said Scott Nason, a Dallas-based aviation consultant, who added that most bereavement tickets cost about 35 percent less than full fare.

He said carriers can’t afford to provide a “great deal” to the bereaved. “The airline has sold most of its inventory by then and is expecting to get top dollar for the remaining seats.”

Most families make no attempt to fly on the same plane as their loved one, but rather seek the lowest price two or three days in advance of a flight. That means the relatives might arrive at the destination first, because a body must be prepared for shipment by a funeral home and then dropped off at an airline’s cargo center.

Jewish people, whose religious customs call for burial within 48 hours, often find themselves scrambling to find an immediate flight. Their best options: Check online for the lowest available seats or plan to fly standby, travel experts say.

Most airlines require proof that someone has died before granting a bereavement fare, such as verification by a funeral home or even a death certificate.

But different airlines have different policies as to which family members are eligible. Some offer the fares only to immediate family; others, such as American, don’t require a family connection.

“We’re aren’t real fussy about it being a specific type of family member,” said Tim Smith, an American Airlines spokesman.

Aside from deaths, some carriers offer bereavement fares in emergency medical situations that require last-minute seats. Most low-fare airlines do not offer bereavement fares.

Because much of South Florida is transplanted from the Northeast or Midwest, the deceased most often fly to New York, Newark, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. With about 3.2 million residents over the age of 65, Florida is a popular place to die.

“Families want to be together in life, and there’s no difference for them in death,” said Keenan Knopke, president of the Florida Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association, based in Tallahassee.

Sometimes, spouses will go to great lengths to make sure they remain near a departed partner, he said.

One woman moved from New York to Chicago and had her deceased husband’s casket exhumed to be reburied near her new home. She later moved to Tampa and did the same thing. Then she moved to Los Angeles.

“She disinterred her husband for a third time and transported him to California,” Knopke said. “She was in love with her husband and just wanted to be near him.”

When it comes to flying the departed to their ultimate destination, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport is one of the busiest in the world. Because of its central location and wide range of domestic flights, it handles most of those who die in South Florida.

Mark Telesca, funeral director in charge of Star of David Cemetery of the Palm Beaches, said the airlines generally charge $300 to $500, depending on the destination, to fly human remains in their cargo holds. The prices to Europe can be triple.

Most bodies are embalmed and placed in a casket, which is then placed in what’s known as an air tray, or a special protective cover, required by the airlines.

If a casket isn’t used, the remains can be placed in a “combination unit,” a special container that acts like a casket. Or, in the case of Jewish people who opt not to be embalmed, bodies are placed in a pouch with a protective lining and gel packs, which act to keep the temperature down, Telesca said.

The airlines handle the remains as they would any other cargo, but are extremely discreet when placing them in cargo holds, said Mark Van Rees, funeral director for Fred Hunter’s Funeral Homes. He said that most of the time people never even notice a casket being loaded onto a plane.

In most instances, funeral homes make the arrangements for a deceased person to be flown and then picked up at the destination airport by another funeral home.

Alan Nichamosf, 70, a Tamarac census worker, said that coordination made life easier when his father, Sidney, 95, died in Boston and had to be flown to New York in July.

“It was a very hectic time,” Nichamosf said. “Dad flying to New York was the least of it.”