One day after United Airlines announced that it was eliminating most ticket change fees, its rivals American and Delta followed suit. The changes are effective immediately.
“We’ve said before that we need to approach flexibility differently than this industry has in the past, and today’s announcement builds on that promise to ensure we’re offering industry-leading flexibility, space and care to our customers,” Delta chief executive Ed Bastian said in a release announcing the change. “We want our customers to book and travel with peace of mind, knowing that we’ll continue evaluating our policies to maintain the high standard of flexibility they expect.”
American will eliminate change fees for domestic and short-haul international tickets for its premium-class travelers and for most of those traveling in the economy cabin. Starting Oct. 1, it also will allow passengers to fly standby on earlier flights to the same destination free.
“American is offering more flexibility and ease than ever before, should travel plans change,” Chief Revenue Officer Vasu Raja said in a news release. “By eliminating change fees, giving customers an opportunity to get where they want to go faster with free same-day standby on earlier flights and providing access to upgrades and seats for all fare types, we’re giving customers the freedom to make their own choices when traveling with American.”
American said it also will offer travelers who buy the cheapest basic-economy tickets the ability to add options, including priority boarding or seat upgrades, for an additional fee.
In making its announcement Sunday that it would permanently eliminate most change fees, United chief executive Scott Kirby said that too often during tough times, airlines made “difficult decisions” that came at the expense of customer service.
“United Airlines won’t be following that same playbook as we come out of this crisis,” he said. “Instead, we’re taking a completely different approach — and looking at new ways to serve our customers better.”
Airlines are struggling to survive the worst economic downturn in industry history because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Since March 1, at least 17 carriers worldwide have shut down or declared bankruptcy. In the United States, tens of thousands of airline employees could lose their jobs Oct. 1 if federal payroll support is not extended.
Eliminating ticket change fees may not be enough to lure customers back immediately, given concerns about traveling during the pandemic, but it may make them more willing to purchase tickets for future travel if they know they won’t be charged if they change their plans.
Consumer groups have long pushed airlines to get rid of change fees, but airlines have resisted in part because they bring in revenue. 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. However, airlines made even more on baggage fees in 2019, about $5.8 billion, nearly 3 percent of their total operating revenue.
“This is a breakthrough,” said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League. “It is very good news for all of us who travel. It does appear it took a pandemic to make this happen, but we’ll take it.”