Airline ‘Change Fees’ Rules About to Change Again
Last updated March 26, 2021
The pandemic did what consumer advocates could never accomplish. It forced the major U.S. airlines to drop their dreaded “change fees” that penalized customers who rescheduled travel dates on nonrefundable tickets.
Change fees—about $200 on domestic flights for most U.S. airlines, $125 on Alaska Airlines—were a major revenue stream for the airline industry, generating about $2.8 billion in 2019, according to Statista. At last week’s 2021 J.P. Morgan Industrials conference, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said his company collected “close to $1 billion a year in change fees.”
Kudos to Southwest Airlines, which never had a change fee.
Until March 31, all new bookings on Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian and United—even basic economy, the cheapest seats on the plan—allow travel date changes with no change fee. After that, you no longer have any flexibility with basic economy fares.
“Starting next month, it goes back to the old system where you actually cannot change your dates for any flight whatsoever once you book a basic economy flight; your dates are locked,” said Scott Keyes, founder and chief flight expert at Scott's Cheap Flights.
So, if you plan to fly anytime this year, and you know you’re going to buy a basic economy ticket, you’d be smart to make that reservation before the end of the month.
“This gives folks a narrow window right now where they can not only lock in cheap flights, but also have the flexibility to change their plans later if the circumstances are warranted, without having to pay a penalty,” Keyes told Checkbook. “It's a real win-win for travelers to be able to make their travel plans in pencil rather than in pen.”
Passenger loads are still down dramatically from pre-pandemic days, but the volume is steadily increasing. If you wait until May to book a summer vacation, there may not be any cheap seats left.
If the price of the new ticket is higher, you’ll pay the difference. If it’s cheaper, most airlines—but not United—will give you a travel voucher for the difference.
It’s possible the airlines will push back the March 31 deadline, as has happened throughout the pandemic, but Keyes believes this one will stick.
“Airlines have wanted to see new bookings on the rise before clamping down on free changes for basic economy tickets,” he said. And thus far flight searches have increased every single week in 2021, reaching new highs since the pandemic began.
Note: For those who book a higher fare—economy, premium economy, business, or first class—the ability to change dates without a fee does not mean you can cancel your tickets and get a refund. You can only do that if you booked the more expensive, fully refundable fare.
What about travel vouchers and credits I received for a canceled flight?
It’s been about a year since the pandemic forced air travel into an unprecedented nose dive. Flights were canceled; worried travelers refused to fly. Millions of people received credits or vouchers for future travel that were originally valid for one year.
The major carriers have shown some flexibility with their deadlines, but the policies “are all over the place,” said Charlie Leocha, founder and president of Travelers United, a consumer advocacy group.
“It is a mess,” Leocha told Checkbook. “It depends on when you canceled your flight, and whether you canceled before or after the airline canceled your flights. Some airlines provide the extension from the date of purchase; others base it on the date of cancellation. Some airlines have extended the expiration date into 2022; others only into portions of 2021.”
Travelers United has been urging the U.S. Department of Transportation to issue some guidance on the issue, but the agency has not acted. Leocha believes airline vouchers and credits for all flights canceled during the pandemic should not expire. Those cancellations were based on government actions, he said, not for the passenger’s convenience.
If you have a credit or voucher, find it and look for two things:
The expiration date. Is that the deadline for booking a flight or the travel date? You may find updated information on the airline’s website.
For example, with American Airlines: A flight voucher must be used within one year—the travel date doesn’t matter. A flight credit is good for travel within one year, but American says credits that expire before March 31, 2021 can be used for travel through the end of the year.
“Most airlines treat their vouchers or credit like a gift card,” Keyes explained. “You have a balance you can draw upon to book any flight. That means you don’t have to rebook the same route you got the credit for.”
Again, the rules vary. A travel voucher with American or United can be used to book travel for anyone. That’s not the case with a flight credit with these two carriers. Delta allows you to buy another person’s ticket with a travel voucher, as long as you are also ticketed on the same reservation.
Try customer service
Having lost billions of dollars in the last year, the nation’s airlines are a bit more accommodating than they’ve been in the past when asked to bend the rules. They could afford to be prickly when their planes were 90 percent full. Right now, with a third or more of the seats empty, they may be more willing to help.
“Call customer service, explain to them why you might not feel comfortable traveling in the next couple of months, and ask for that six-month or 12-month extension,” Keyes said. “You'd be surprised how often they’re willing to grant it. They're not likely to do it unilaterally on their own. You need to call and ask.”
Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He is also the consumer reporter for KOMO radio in Seattle. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.