The High Price of Mercy

by DavalosMcCormack on March 10, 2010

Disasters often bring out the best in people. The recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile led to an outpouring of support – both financial and emotional – from people all over the world for the victims of the quakes. Millions of ordinary individuals, many of whom are going through tough times themselves, donated money to help buy medical supplies and other necessities.

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Many corporations also responded with generosity, donating money to relief funds. Sadly that spirit of kindness did not infect all American businesses. Take airlines for instance.

I work for California Pacific Medical Center, a major hospital in San Francisco. CPMC is an affiliate of Sutter Health, a network of hospitals and health care providers spread throughout Northern California. After the quake in Haiti, Sutter Health donated $1.5 million in funds and supplies to help with relief work. Within days of the quake Sutter also put together a team of doctors and nurses who flew out to Port au Prince to work with injured survivors. The team were flown there on a private jet, donated by someone who wanted to help, and spent a week, working 20 hour days, performing surgery and healing the wounded.

A few weeks later it was decided to send a second team. This time, because the crisis had fallen out of the headlines there was no donated jet to take them to Haiti. Instead they had to fly commercial. No big whoop you might think. But because the expedition was put together on relatively short notice – hey, it’s an emergency, by its very nature you don’t get much warning – they had to pay whatever the airline felt like charging.

And the airline felt like charging a lot.

Nowadays many airlines have a sliding fee for seats. Book it way ahead and you get one price, but as the plane fills up and the takeoff day approaches the cost of buying one of the remaining seats rises. Our Haiti team (17 doctors and nurses) wasn’t finalised until a few days before they left so that meant every time they confirmed a team member and booked a seat for them, the price for the remaining seats rose.

In the morning they were able to buy a round trip ticket from San Francisco to Port au Prince for $700. By the end of the day when they confirmed the last member, the price was $2,000.

The airline didn’t offer any discounts for relief missions. They didn’t take into account that every member of the team was taking time off from work – in some cases unpaid time – to bring much needed medical care, supplies and compassion to victims of the quake. Want sympathy? That’ll be $20 extra please.

Not only that, but they also limited how much luggage the team could bring. Two bags, no more than 50 lbs each. Any extra luggage and it was $100 per bag. Who cares that they were bringing in as much medication, bandages, lotions and supplies as they could possibly carry and scrounge together in the time available to them.

I know the airlines are in financial distress. Times are hard for a lot of businesses right now. But gouging a team heading to a disaster zone to help the victims of a devastating earthquake is not going to improve their bottom line or their reputation. I understand the need to charge for coffee or sandwiches, I understand the need for headphones and movies. But to charge for mercy!

Think of the image they could have projected to the public if they had told the team they could fly for free... priceless!

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