The beginning of the end of airline change fees? United is ditching them for good – with a major catch

Changing a nonrefundable airline ticket has long been a pricey exercise on most airlines.

Need to move your dates or times or even destination? Fork over at least $200 per person, on top of any fare difference between the new trip and the original ticket.

Airlines have been waiving the onerous fees for months as the coronavirus pandemic has caused a flood of trip cancellations.

On Sunday, one major airline become the first to say change fees are gone for good, with a couple catches. (Southwest Airlines has never charged change fees.)

United Airlines is eliminating ticket change fees on domestic flights, effective immediately. They are already waived at least through the end of the year due to the pandemic.

“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 statement. “Following previous tough times, airlines made difficult decisions to survive, sometimes at the expense of customer service. United Airlines won’t be following that same playbook as we come out of this crisis. Instead, we’re taking a completely different approach – and looking at new ways to serve our customers better.”

The airline also announced that, beginning in January, it will allow travelers without top-tier status in the airline’s frequent flier program to stand by for a different domestic or international flight on their day of travel without paying a $75 fee.

The new no-change-fee policy applies to travelers with standard economy and premium cabin tickets for travel within the United States, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Passengers must still pay any fare difference.

The use of the words standard economy is deliberate. United’s new policy will not apply to its no-frills basic economy tickets, generally the cheapest tickets. No changes have ever been allowed with those tickets, even by paying a change fee, though United has waived that policy, too, during the pandemic.

Before the pandemic pummeled travel demand, ticket change fees, like bag fees and seat selection fees, were a big money maker for airlines.

In 2019, United collected $625 million in ticket change fees, second only to Delta and American, according to U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

The airline brought in another $113.4 million from change fees in the first three months of this year, with the figure down from a year ago because the airline started waiving the fees in early March.

The change fees are loathed by travelers, though, and can add up to more than the price of the original ticket, making a change prohibitive.

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian acknowledged the rancor in an interview with USA TODAY in January, before the coronavirus crisis hit, and suggested the airline was considering a change in policy.

 “When you think about our fee structure, I think there’s fees in there, and change fees are part of that, that people feel are punitive,” he said.

A month earlier, another Delta executive told investors that the airline had a group of customers and employees working together on a project to see how Delta can “change change” with plans to roll it out in 2020.

3 things travelers need to know about United’s new no change fee policy

1.Basic economy tickets are excluded. Changes to those no-frills tickets have never been allowed except during the pandemic or within 24 hours of ticket purchase.

2. It covers flights within the United States and Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Multiple changes are allowed. Passengers will no longer pay a $200 change fee but must still pay any fare difference, which can be pricey, especially if a change is made at the last minute.

3. International flights, which carry higher change fees, are excluded. The change fees on international flights vary by destination.

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