Changing the Change Fees Won't Change Flying Now
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 2020 -- Another lesson learned: Even when they are so desperate that they'll do something good, airlines will lie about it and make believe it's something it isn't.

Yeah, this is about change fees. What did you think we'd talk about this week?

There's something about the week before Labor Day that appears to drive the airlines crazy. Who can forget US Airways' suicide attempt the week before Labor Day in 2002? Ben Baldanza, the guy behind that fiasco, went on to run Spirit Airlines and became nationally infamous for his crude ads and cruder comments about his customers.

This week before Labor Day, of course, the airlines again face a truly frightening reality: The summer travel revival, weak as it was, has ended. Traffic may fall through the rickety floor airlines established at 25-30 percent of last year's volume. Another bailout seems unlikely. And even Nick Calio, arrogant and clueless chief executive of the dumbly named airline trade group, admits that carriers may not reach 2019 passenger volume again until 2024.

Faced with this tsunami of troubles, the airlines decided now was the time to be a little less offensive. On Sunday, United Airlines announced it was eliminating change fees. American and Delta Air Lines followed on Monday. Alaska Airlines joined the crowd on Tuesday. Hawaiian Airlines moved today. JetBlue Airways remains missing in action, but Southwest Airlines spent the entire week chortling corporately and reminding the world that it never had change fees.

THE CHANGE FEES THEY ARE A CHANGING

AIRLINE

WHERE

WHEN*

FARES COVERED**

Alaska Airlines

Anywhere

January 1

All paid fares except Saver

American Airlines

50 states, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean, Puerto Rico, USVI

Immediately

All paid fares (except Basic Economy) and award tickets

Delta Air Lines

50 states, Puerto Rico, USVI

Immediately

All paid fares except Basic Economy

Hawaiian Airlines

Inter-island, Hawaii-mainland

Immediately

All paid fares (except Basic Economy) and award tickets

United Airlines

50 states, Puerto Rico, USVI

January 1

All paid fares except Basic Economy

KEY: This chart covers change-fee waivers announced this week. * Carriers essentially waive change fees for flights before December 31. ** Airlines require you pay the fare difference if you switch to a flight at a higher price. American will give you travel voucher for fare difference if new flight is cheaper than original. United will keep the difference. Alaska and Delta have not published a policy.


But even when they are desperate to make friends and influence travelers, the airlines can't help but lie and buy up the global supply of fine print. It started where it started: with United lying and cheating all the way.

United claimed its elimination of change fees was "permanent." It isn't. It is merely United's fee policy at the moment, just as it was United policy last week to charge change fees. United can't be held to any notion of "permanent" changes because it can change its corporate mind tomorrow and start charging change fees again. (Question: If United changes its change fees again, does it have to pay a change fee?)

There was also the big lie: United isn't eliminating change fees permanently--or at all. It's eliminating some fees on some fares to some destinations. Many remain--including the $400 whopper for changing many international tickets.

And, of course, there was the fine print. If you change a ticket that costs more than the ticket to which you're switching, United keeps the difference. No refunds or credit for you. Naturally, if you switch to a flight that costs more than the one you already purchased, you must pay the difference. Heads United wins, tails you lose.

To one degree or another, the carriers dragged along in United's wake lied and misled just as United did. Although, in fairness, most were less dramatically disingenuous as United. Not a lot less, but less. Check the chart above for some of the differences between the various change-fee changes.

Let's be honest here: This doesn't mean diddly right now because so few of us are flying. Obviously, the airlines hope that eliminating some fees will help encourage you to fly. I don't know how it will. We are either going to fly now or we are not. A lack of change fees on flights to a destination that doesn't want us simply won't motivate us. And by the time we can travel again and flying picks up, the airlines will reimpose change fees even as they remind us that "permanent" didn't mean what we thought it meant.

In the interim, however, some considerations:

        The next nickel-and-dime scam The term airline revenue is something of an oxymoron right now, but once upon a time (last year), change fees were worth around $3 billion to airline bottom lines. And I mean bottom line since virtually all of those billions dropped right to the profit line. The airlines will have to replace that revenue somehow. You know, assuming we fly again and they have the chance to nickel-and-dime us again.
        Us, them and dollars In decades past, airlines used tricks like Saturday-stay rules to wall off their cheapest fares from business travelers. (In fact, the built-in price discrimination is why "We hate airlines" is our default mindset.) But now it looks like airlines are counting on Basic Economy to be the business-travel firewall. All five carriers that claimed to permanently eliminate change fees this week actually retained the fees on Basic Economy. That'll make Basic Economy, cheap as it may be at the top line, a non-starter for most business travelers. You know, whenever it is that non-starter stops being our pandemic default. (By the way, American Airlines improved its version of Basic Economy this week. I mean, it's still Basic Economy, but it's a little less basic.)
        The luggage line Southwest Airlines has used its no-fee policy and bundling of checked bags into fares as the basis of its campaign to differentiate itself from other carriers. My guess is that other airlines will not go luggage-inclusive. That's a line they crossed more than a decade ago and travelers have gradually and grudgingly accepted that everyone but Southwest charges bag fees. Of course, my powers of prognostication have been miserable on bag fees, so maybe take my assessment with several packets of single-serve salt.

In the end, however, a change in change fees hardly matters. They were hateful in January and February when people--leisure people and business people--flew in record numbers. Eliminating some of them won't goose flying now that people--leisure people and business people--are sitting at home in record numbers.

As we have learned during these endless months of lockdown and near-lockdown, it's the virus and the lack of testing keeping us on the ground. Until that changes, changing change fees won't matter much.