Quietly, United makes a major fee change. Will it last?


In airline speak, almost any change is trumpeted as good news for the customer. Most changes are publicized immediately with the best possible spin put on any new policy.

Not this time. United Airlines, without as much as a memo to travel agents, quietly raised their domestic change fees from $150 to $200, per ticket, per change. Plus, they raised their Latin America penalties from $250 to $300.

Originally change fees were only $50, but they have been gradually rising over the years. This increase, however, is a 33 1/3% increase at one time.

And increasingly, this is a change fee that can at times be more than the cost of at least one-way of the ticket.

Even more frustrating to travelers, this comes on the heels of a subtle penalty increase when United and Continental merged last March. Until the merger, if a traveler had a fare of say, $500, and changed it to a ticket costing $400, they could take the penalty out of the original fare, and pay only the remainder.

Since the United-Continental merger if even the old fare was twice the new fare, the full penalty must be charged. In some cases, the difference can be put on a electronic travel voucher, but the procedure is complicated.

Admittedly, this is United’s first adjustment of the change since 2008, but it’s a substantial one. Their rational for the change: “We carefully manage our seat inventory and incur costs when a traveler elects not to fly in a reserved seat. We adjusted this fee to better compensate us for those costs.”

Uh,yeah. Right. And is the airline going into the bridge selling business in Brooklyn too?

Certainly a traveler no-showing a flight costs an airline money. But these days, on most carriers including United, if a client no-shows a flight, the ticket becomes invalid and the airline can keep the entire price paid, even if they resell the seat or give it to a standby thereby freeing up another seat to sell.

Similarly, if a passenger cancels a day or so before a flight it MIGHT be hard to resell that seat. (Although most flights I have been on recently are completely full.)

But what about when passengers book months before travel and discover well in advance that they need to change the dates. Or, when passengers cancel flights with waiting lists?

For that matter, if the ticket is booked by a travel agent, the agent has to do all the work of the exchange, with ZERO compensation from the airlines. (Believe me, for say, a family of four, it’s already hard to tell clients we have to charge $600 and then ask for a fee on top of it.)

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that airlines need to make a profit and that discount fares involve a trade-off. But a $200 change fee seems excessive; especially as with most other nonrefundable tickets — to sporting events, theater, concerts etc, there is the option to resell tickets that can’t be used. There is no such option with the airlines.

So far, no other carriers have joined United. So it will be very interesting to see if anyone follows suit. Later it will be even more interesting if they don’t, will keep the fee increase?

At the time of writing this post, while Southwest so far remains change fee free, the other major legacy carriers are still at $150. Plus, Virgin America and JetBlue now have change fees that are HALF the cost of United’s, and Alaska only charges $75.

So stand by, this could get very interesting.

  • BobChi

    Tickets to events don’t have names on them. It’s a significant difference. I think it’s fair to say people will want to book non-refundable fares away from United if they are not really certain they will fly as ticketed.

  • janice

    BobChi, I know they don’t have names on them, although they do have identifying numbers as to the purchasers. Airlines could easily allow name changes, even for a penalty, if they wanted to do so.

  • Ruth Wood

    Having been a travel agent since 1985, I can tell you that change fees began at $25.00……then to $35.00…then to $50.00……$75.00…..$100.00…..$150.00….now $200.00…..in a fairly short span of time. I only see the other airlines pouncing on this as quickly as possible.

  • reasonedthought

    Not only will it last, but the other carriers will all be on board by early May US Airways has already upped their fees today. Can Delta be far behind?

  • James Penrose

    Always remember, the ideal situation is where the consumer is forced to pay for the product or service regardless and the company has no legal requirement to provide anything whatsoever.

    Airlines are well on their way to that lofty goal. They already have it so wrapped up they can shove you on a Greyhound bus for a cross country trip and call it “code sharing” or “alternate transportation”.

  • UAPhil

    Southwest has no change fees (and their Rapid Rewards award bookings are fully refundable). I’m a million miler on UA, but I’ve been doing most of my domestic travel on Southwest recently. Let’s vote with our wallets!!

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