United Permanently Cuts the Dreaded Ticket Change Fee

Travelers changing flights domestically will now avoid the $200 charge

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Change fees have been waived by airlines to encourage bookings during the pandemic. Pixbay
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At the height of the 2008 economic recession, American Airlines became the first major carrier to charge for a checked bag. More than a decade later, travelers now almost expect to be nickel and dimed for everything short of using the lavatory (though Ryanair floated that idea in 2010).

But now, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, United Airlines is going a different route: It’s eliminating the change fee.

Announced late Sunday, the airline will no longer charge for changes made to a domestic itinerary, forgoing the $200 fee travelers have grudgingly become accustomed to. The airline is the first to permanently eliminate the fee. (However, United is not the only airline that is change fee-free: Southwest has allowed customers to make itinerary changes for years without charge.)

The airline also announced that starting in January, customers will be able to add themselves to the standby list of a different flight should their plans change.

“You may remember as we emerged from previous tough times, we made difficult decisions to survive financially but sometimes at the expense of customer service, either by adding new fees or cutting the things that made the experience better,” said United CEO Scott Kirby, noting that the fee was often a point of contention among flyers.

The move to earn some goodwill in the industry’s darkest hour is laudable, although in recent months, there’s been next to no revenue associated with the change fee, as it’s been waived since March due to the pandemic. Last month, Kirby called the brand’s last quarter the “most difficult financial quarter in its 94-year history,” as the airline posted $1.6 billion in losses. Operating revenue was down 87%.

The change fee will be waived for all travelers from economy to United’s premium class, although the fee still applies to United’s most barebones option, Basic Economy, which also includes the aforementioned baggage fee.

It’s still to be seen if United’s move will prompt its competitors, Delta and American, to do the same. Airlines have been looking for ways to distinguish themselves and win customers amid the pandemic. Delta, for example, has blocked the middle seat to ensure social distancing.

@RyanBarwick ryan.barwick@adweek.com Ryan is a brand reporter covering travel, mobility and sports marketing.