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Major U.S. Airlines Are Getting Rid of Change Fees for Good

In its latest move to offer more flexibility to fliers during COVID-19, United Airlines is putting an end to ticket change fees for good. The airline announced Sunday that going forward, it will no longer be charging change fees for all standard economy and premium cabin tickets for travel within the U.S., effective immediately.

Change fees—which can run as high as $200, depending on the airline and flight—are the ancillary charge levied when a flier needs to alter their itinerary, typically on top of any difference in fare a customer is asked to shell out for. Many fliers see them as unnecessarily punitive. Southwest Airlines, for example, is beloved by customers in large part because there are no change fees and fliers have the ability to shift their plans as needed, free of charge.

Under its new domestic policy—which also applies to travel to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands—United will not limit the amount of times a passenger can adjust their flights. The airline is also extending its fee waiver for new tickets purchased through December 31, meaning that all tickets purchased from March 3 through the end of the year—both domestic and international—will be permitted an unlimited amount of free changes. Change fees will remain on international flights, which go up to $400 depending on destination.

On Monday, Delta and American Airlines both followed suit and also announced similar policies to permanently end change fees. Delta's new policy nixes the fees for travel within the U.S., including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Effective immediately, the airline will no longer charge fees to cancel or change domestic flights in all Delta fare classes except basic economy.

American has eliminated the fees for domestic flights and even some short-haul international destinations, too, like Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. The new policy applies to all fare classes, except basic economy.

Additionally, United announced that beginning January 1, 2021, it will be the first U.S. carrier to allow all passengers to fly standby for free on any flight departing on their same day of travel, regardless of the type of ticket or class of service, a perk usually reserved for passengers with unrestricted fares or top elite statuses. American also introduced a similar policy on Monday that is set to go into effect on October 1, 2020. Previously, United and American charged $75 for a same-day flight change.

Amid the pandemic, most airlines have been waiving change fees on a temporary basis not only to help customers who need to adapt to an ever-changing web of health regulations and travel restrictions, but also to entice passengers to book tickets again. In fact, some consumer advocates, such as Consumer Federation of America, have been lobbying for the fees to be cut altogether, given the circumstances of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Eliminating change fees has been one of the top customer service requests United receives from its passengers, according to the carrier's CEO Scott Kirby. But it's far from a light decision when it comes to an airline's bottom line: In 2019, U.S. airlines collectively pulled in $8.6 billion in baggage and change fees, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Following previous tough times, airlines made difficult decisions to survive, sometimes at the expense of customer service," Kirby said in a video statement to fliers. "United Airlines won’t be following that same playbook as we come out of this crisis."

We're reporting on how COVID-19 impacts travel on a regular basis.

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