United says it will drop widely scorned ticket-change fees

AP – United Airlines said it listened to customers and is dropping an unpopular USD200 fee for most people who change a ticket for travel within the United States (US).

“When we hear from customers about where we can improve, getting rid of fees is often the top request,” United CEO Scott Kirby said in a video posted on Sunday.

United’s move will put pressure on American Airlines and Delta Air Lines to drop their change fees, also USD200 on domestic travel. Delta and American said they are waiving change fees for travel affected by the virus through the year’s end. Southwest Airlines does not charge change fees, a policy which its CEO said has helped it gain more business.

United said that it eliminated change fees for people who buy a standard or premium economy ticket for US travel.

United also said that it will extend a broad waiver of change fees — including for international travel — through December 31. Customers who pay the lowest fares, called “basic economy,” can also change tickets free because of the extended waiver announced
on Sunday.

And starting in January, it will let customers fly standby for free on other flights the same day as their booked flight.

The moves come as United and other airlines try desperately to lure people back to flying despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. US air travel has recovered modestly since April, but passenger traffic remains down about 70 per cent from a year ago.

Rows of United Airlines check-in counters at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. PHOTO: AP

The four largest US airlines lost a combined USD10 billion from April through June. Airlines shared USD25 billion in federal payroll aid under pandemic relief legislation and are lobbying for USD25 billion more.

United has warned 36,000 employees that they could be furloughed in October. It received USD5 billion in taxpayer money to keep workers on the payroll through September.

Consumer groups have long complained about the array of fees that airlines impose for things that were once part of the fare. Change fees draw particular scorn because, critics said, they far exceed airlines’ costs of changing or cancelling tickets with a few keystrokes.

Fees on checked bags and ticket changes gained widespread use during an industry downturn in 2008. Since then, airlines have added fees on seats with more legroom, priority boarding and other amenities.

They contributed to a highly profitable run that lasted for a decade, broken only by the pandemic. Now airlines are slashing flights and shrinking work forces to cope with the
travel slump.

The United CEO acknowledged that airlines facing tough times have often “made difficult decisions to survive, sometimes at the expense of customer service.” Kirby said United is looking to serve customers better this time.