By Ending Change Fees, U.S. Airlines Gain a New Marketing Tool

Why Delta, American and United all axed the pesky charges

Leisure travelers are pretty much the only market there is for airlines right now. Getty Images
Headshot of Ryan Barwick

The airline industry’s myriad fees have been a bone of contention with travelers for years, and the change fee—which charges fliers as much as $200 to take a different flight after purchasing a ticket—is one of the most hated.

But this week, within a few hours of one another led by United Airlines, almost every major U.S. airline eliminated those pesky charges. It’s one less pain point travelers will have to worry about when they’re already concerned about their health and safety (when was the last time that tray table was disinfected?)

United was the first airline to make the decision, announcing the change Sunday afternoon. Within hours, American Airlines and Delta followed suit. Those airlines along with Southwest, which has never charged a change fee, make up the four largest airlines in the U.S.

“Once United announced, It was pretty much guaranteed that American and Delta would have to respond, and respond quickly,” said Henry Harteveldt, president of the aviation consulting firm Atmosphere Research. “They weren’t going to let United have an advantage over them. It’s a game of Follow the Leader on almost everything.”

With the long Labor Day weekend looming, the move was squarely aimed at leisure travelers, just about the only market that exists at the moment as other demand remains at all time lows. Now, travelers without the luxury of a corporate card won’t have to worry about burning cash on a trip they can’t take.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s Covid, or if it’s a business conflict, or if you’re having a bad hair day. You can now change your flight,” said Harteveldt. “It’s one less thing you need to worry about.”

Not wanting to waste an opportunity to celebrate in the end zone, a Southwest airlines spokesperson responded to the move with: “While other carriers are just now joining the club, we founded it.”

Flying has never been an exactly seamless experience, even before the pandemic sent Google searches for HEPA filters skyrocketing. It should be noted that after a bit of arm twisting by way of legislative pressure, most airlines had already waived change fees since April.

“JetBlue or Alaska will have to announce something this week. This is a poker game,” said Harteveldt. Meanwhile, American has already raised the stakes, going a step further to give travelers a voucher if they find a cheaper flight.

“Other airlines are keeping that money, and we just don’t think that’s the right thing for our customers,” said Janelle Anderson, vp of global marketing at American. “It’s important to leisure travelers that they feel like we’re being flexible, easy to do business with.”

Anderson said American had worked on making the change before United’s decision on Sunday. But would it have happened without the pandemic? Not likely.

“The traveling public looks different than it did a year ago,” she said. “Change fees have always been a pain point. I can’t say this wouldn’t have happened necessarily, but it was always a consideration.”

The move also gives airlines one more item in their marketing toolkit. Since the onset of the pandemic, the industry has jockeyed over cleaning and sanitization policies. JetBlue, Southwest and Delta have all vowed to eliminate the middle seat, with Delta promising to keep them empty until January 2021. American and United have taken a different approach, instead emphasizing new cleaning technologies. And there is one policy they’ve all agreed on: Every U.S. airline requires travelers to wear masks.

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@RyanBarwick Ryan is a brand reporter covering travel, mobility and sports marketing.