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United Airlines permanently eliminates some change fees

The move comes as airlines struggle to attract customers in the midst of a global pandemic

United Airlines planes at Los Angeles International Airport. (iStock)

Effective immediately, United Airlines will permanently eliminate change fees for all standard economy and premium tickets for travel within the United States, the carrier announced Sunday.

In making the announcement, the airline joins rival Southwest Airlines, which also does not charge change fees. During the pandemic, other carriers also have waived change fees, but only on a temporary basis.

Beginning Jan. 1, United also will allow customers to fly standby free on flights leaving the day of their scheduled travel, regardless of the type of ticket or class of service.

The announcements come as the industry faces an unprecedented drop in air travel in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and carriers around the world are struggling to stay afloat. U.S. carriers have reported billions of dollars in losses, and hopes for a quick recovery have been thwarted by a resurgence of the virus. Come Oct. 1, thousands of airline employees face the possibility that they could lose their jobs when the payroll support program created as part of the Cares Act expires.

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“Change is inevitable these days — but it’s how we respond to it that matters most,” United chief executive Scott Kirby said. “When we hear from customers about where we can improve, getting rid of fees is often the top request.

“Following previous tough times, airlines made difficult decisions to survive, sometimes at the expense of customer service,” Kirby said. “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.”

Demand for air travel has all but evaporated with the coronavirus, but airlines are still flying. And as of May, passengers must wear masks. (Video: The Washington Post)

Consumer groups have long pushed for airlines to do away with change fees, arguing they can be unreasonable, sometimes costing almost half the price of the original ticket. But airlines have steadfastly resisted because such fees have become a lucrative revenue stream. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, U.S. carriers made $2.8 billion from reservation change fees in 2019, roughly 1.4 percent of their total operating revenue. Airlines made even more on baggage fees, roughly $5.8 billion, about 2.9 percent of their total operating revenue.

But as carriers scramble to win back customers, many are looking for ways to build both flexibility and loyalty.

United said it also would extend its waiver for new tickets issued through Dec. 31, permitting unlimited changes with no fee. The change will apply to all ticket types, purchased after March 3, 2020, for domestic and international travel.

The new change fee policy will apply to all standard economy and premium cabin tickets for travel within the United States, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Customers will not be limited in the number of times they adjust their flights, the airline said.