The first announcement was a bombshell. Then, like dominoes, they all fell.
United Airlines started the landslide when it revealed it was dropping change fees - forever.
Air passengers in the US dropped to below 100,000 a day at the peak of the pandemic travel shutdown – recovering to 10 X that number over the last month, which is still only a drop in the bucket of pre-COVID air travel rates. Something had to give.
Change fees – at United, it cost $200 to change a domestic booked ticket, plus any difference between the prices of the tickets – have been controversial.
When it made the announcement, United admitted change fees were the top requested improvement in customer service. And it made a commitment to find new ways to serve its customers better as a way to emerge stronger from the crisis.
Change at United Airlines
The airline is immediately and permanently dropping Economy and Premium ticket change fees for travel in the U.S. There are no limits on the number of times you can make changes.
Beginning in the New Year, you can fly standby on any flight on the day of your original flight for free. It applies to all types of tickets and class of service - a first among U.S. carriers - and it applies to all flights both inside U.S. and to and from international destinations.
United is also extending its waiver for new tickets issued through December 31, 2020, to permit unlimited changes with no fee. It applies to all ticket types issued after March 3, 2020 and is valid for both domestic and international travel.
United’s move started a domino effect as the carrier’s U.S. competitors scrambled to match its move.
Delta quickly chimed in with its own, similar announcement.
Since March and the tsunami of COVID-related cancellations, it’s waived change fees. Now, the $200 domestic change fee is cancelled for good except for Basic Economy tickets.
However, the airline will continue to permit no-charge changes for all tickets including even Basic Economy, both domestic and international, through the end of the year.
Simultaneously with Delta, American Airlines fell in line, too. In its case, permanently-waived change fees apply to domestic as well as short-haul international flights, for premium cabin and most – but not all – main cabin tickets. Fliers will have to pay any difference in fares, but American will refund the difference as a voucher if the changed flight fare comes in lower than your original flight.
American mirrored United and Delta’s new policies of allowing booked passengers to fly standby anytime on the day of their flight for free.
In addition, American said even Basic Economy ticket holders would now be able to purchase upgrades, priority boarding, preferred seating and confirmed same-day flight changes
Then Alaska Airlines followed suit. In this carrier’s case, it had been charging less - only $125 change fees - but moving forward will charge no change fees on all domestic – or international – tickets.
In addition, the airline is extending its flexible travel policy for all newly-booked tickets through the end of the year – including its lowest-cost Saver tickets.
Then There Were 5
Now, 5 major US airlines are not charging controversial change fees.
Consumer favorite Southwest airlines has never charged for ticket changes.
Unlike the other major airlines, Southwest resisted padding its bottom line with surcharges that used to be included in all airline ticket fares, and earned a lot of customer loyalty in return.
So travelers may see more sweetening of flight fees yet, if Southwest feels pressured to re-establish its leadership in value.
Not Onboard - Yet
While the flurry of announcements in the US did away with one of the most disliked surcharges in travel applied by its major airlines, outside of the States… crickets.
So far, no airline outside the US, including carriers in Canada, have joined the major US airlines in permanently dropping fees to boost bookings or become more competitive. (Many are temporarily ‘waiving’ change and cancellation fees relating to flights cancelled due to the pandemic and travel bans. But a return to change fees hangs over passengers’ heads.)
These recent announcements could still transform the entire North American and global air travel landscape, however.
For example, both United and Air Canada are members of Star Alliance. And Air Canada’s loyalty program Aeroplan members can accumulate points flying on United. Those fliers may opt for United itineraries to their destination for the flexibility to change their plans at no cost.
So even airlines outside the US may find themselves under pressure to match these new policies and drop some surcharges, or risk seeing passenger ‘flight’ to competing brands.
In The Big Picture: This development may make flying domestically or even internationally more affordable and appealing to travelers making plans to take off on a post-COVID trip soon.
Image courtesy United Airlines.
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