Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, we have wondered what kind of changes COVID would bring to travel, and whether those changes would be temporary or longer lasting. And now we’re seeing one of the first of the more permanent developments—the death of the airline change fee. Over the course of about 48 hours, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, and Alaska Airlines all announced that they have permanently eliminated their flight change fees.
“This is a very important change,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and president of travel market research firm Atmosphere Research. “The reason they’re making these changes is to increase consumer confidence in booking flights. The airlines know that consumers are scared to book flights because of the public health landscape.”
With these new policies, he added, airlines are hoping that travelers who have held off on booking because they’re worried about changing travel restrictions and public health conditions will go ahead and book knowing they can change without “having to pay that annoying, expensive $200 fee.”
The advantage for the airlines, in addition to what will hopefully be an uptick in bookings, is that they will get a better sense of where people actually want to fly and can plan accordingly. Rather than waiting until the last minute, travelers can book a bit further in advance knowing that if circumstances change they can adjust their flight plans in response.
Harteveldt observed that it also puts United, Delta, American, and Alaska on a more level playing field with Southwest, which has a long-standing policy of no change fees. Along those lines, American is taking another page from the Southwest book by allowing customers to hang on to unused travel credits if the flight they rebook is cheaper than the original flight (more on that below).
United’s new no-fee policies
United was the first to announce its dramatic fee-drop decision on August 30, when the carrier said it was permanently ditching its $200 change fees on all standard economy and premium class tickets for travel within the 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, effective immediately. United customers will not be limited in the number of times they can change their flight free of charge.
“When we hear from customers about where we can improve, getting rid of this fee is often the top request,” United CEO Scott Kirby said in a video message to customers on Sunday about its decision to permanently eliminate the change fee for U.S. travel.
The airline is also extending its change fee waiver for new tickets purchased by December 31, 2020, for travel domestically and internationally.
Other United fees are getting the ax, too. Effective January 1, 2021, United customers will no longer be charged $75 to fly standby. Instead, they will be able to fly standby for free on a flight departing the same day of their travel regardless of the type of ticket they purchased. Customers who want to switch flights can add themselves to the standby list through the United app, on the United website, or at the airport no more than 30 minutes prior to departure for domestic flights and one hour prior to departure for international flights.
MileagePlus members will also be spared the change fee (up to $125) for award travel flights and will be able to confirm a same-day standby seat for free on a different flight with the same departure and arrival cities as their original ticket. MileagePlus members who cancel their award flights can do so without penalty up to 30 days prior to departure (and their funds will be redeposited intact), including for international tickets. If a reward flight is canceled less than 30 days prior to departure, there will be a $125 charge.
For flights that are canceled by travelers (and not rescheduled), United will issue customers a future flight credit.
American, Delta, and Alaska swiftly follow suit, each with their own take
United’s decision to ditch its change fees was followed in rapid succession by similar announcements from Delta, American, and Alaska which this week said they, too, would be getting rid of their change fees permanently.
Delta’s elimination of its $200 change fees is also effective immediately and includes almost all tickets purchased for travel within the 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands—it excludes Basic Economy flights.
Basic Economy as well as international flights will, however, have change fees waived through the end of 2020.
American Airlines has also done away with its $200 change fee, but for more destinations. In addition to vowing to no longer apply a change fee for flights in the 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, American’s new no-change-fee policy also applies to flights to Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. As with Delta, American is not extending the policy to Basic Economy class. AAdvantage award tickets also no longer face a change fee.
American took its policy a step further than Delta and United, however. If the rebooked flight is less expensive than the original, customers won’t lose that cash. For example, if a customer paid $500 for a flight and changes that flight to one that costs $300, American will give the customer a $200 future flight credit.
Effective October 1, 2020, all American customers can fly standby for free for flights on the same day as their original departure for the same destination at no charge, both for domestic and international travel.
Like United and Delta, American’s change fee waiver applies to any new travel (domestic and international and any fare class) purchased by December 31, 2020.
Alaska jumped into the change fee dumping frenzy on Tuesday when it announced that it will eliminate change fees on all domestic and international tickets (with the exception of Saver fare tickets) effective immediately. Alaska has typically charged a change fee of $125, save for those with refundable fares or who are Mileage Plan elite status members. Those who purchase any flight, including Saver fare tickets, through December 31, 2020, will have their change fee waived.
Given that the more expansive change fee waivers are all in place until the end of the year, it’s important to note that these more permanent change fee eliminations won’t really matter until 2021.
So, are all these change fee changes truly for the rest of all time? “This is the airline business, not holy matrimony,” said Harteveldt. “There is absolutely nothing stopping an airline from reimposing the change fees if it determines it needs to do so.” Duly noted.
This story was originally published on August 31, 2020, and has been updated to include current information.
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