Why new higher airline change fees may be hazardous to your health


After a very brief period of decision-making, American, Delta and US Airways quickly matched United’s domestic change fee hike from $150 to $200 per ticket, plus any fare difference.

JetBlue and Virgin America, for now, remain at $100. Southwest still hasn’t announced change fees, though later this year, no-shows on Southwest will lose ticket value unless they cancel their reservation.

In any case, I’m not joking about the fees being potentially hazardous to your health. Here’s why.

Business travelers who have to change tickets for any reason, including illness, will no doubt charge the penalties to their company.

But individuals on a budget and families traveling together are going to have even more motivation to get on their scheduled flights, no matter how badly they are feeling.

Because while some international tickets have waivers for documented illness (which may or may not require hospitalization) domestic tickets have no such waiver.

To be fair, part of this is the traveling public’s fault, as in the old days everyone simply asked their family doctor for a note, regardless of what the reason for cancellation was.

Then, airlines tightened up. They decided, if a plane isn’t canceled, seriously delayed due to weather or the passenger themselves doesn’t die, the change fee applies.

So what we now have is a situation where if a family of four is flying, at best it will cost $800 to change the tickets. Which means if a kid is physically able to fly, they are quite likely to try to travel as booked.

Personally, I’ve only had one case where I KNOW parents took a probably contagious child on a trip. While I know it was irresponsible, they told me they couldn’t afford the change fees and prices. Plus, an airline agent on the phone also declined to help them.

In discussing this post with friends and clients, though, I heard more than one person say they had done something similar, or would if the alternative were expensive enough.

Many people of course will suck it up and pay the new fees, even if it’s a stretch to afford them. Some travelers will start buying insurance.

Many others, however, will just book that once or twice a year vacation, and hope for the best, figuring, as one client said, “If we can walk or stagger on the plane, we’re going.”

The whole fee structure could use reworking — a change months in advance when the airline has plenty of time to resell the seat really isn’t the same as a last minute cancellation, for example.

However, in the meantime, the airlines should at least look at some fee reductions or waiver for real illnesses, perhaps documented by a medical bill similar to what insurers require.

It wouldn’t just be good public relations, it might help healthy travelers stay that way.

  • mapsmith

    Seems like this would be a good one in a sort of “Passengers Bill of Rights”.

    Lobby your Congressmen to make illness a reason for a ticket Change (with a doctor’s note if necessary) at no charge. There is no reason for someone with a Contagious Disease (including the common cold) to be in a pressurized tube with 150+ other people.

    In the past few years there have been several Rubella (measles) and Mumps outbreaks that were traced to passengers on a plane.

    Maybe the Center for Disease Control needs to work with the FAA and institute a regulation requiring airlines to allow free rebooking of sick passengers.

  • Charlie Leocha

    That is a wonderful suggestion. The Consumer Travel Alliance will look into this. Healthcare officials have never been brought into these discussions — tarmac delays and change fees.

  • MeanMeosh

    That’s great in theory. In reality, allowing free changes for presenting a doctor’s note is an open invitation to fraud. I have a couple of doctor friends, and if I don’t feel like taking my flight tomorrow, I could just ask one of them to write me a note saying I’m “sick”. Would I do something dishonest like that, no, but if you believe this will be an isolated occurrence, you are sadly mistaken.

  • MeanMeosh

    I predict something a little different. I suspect you’ll see a lot of people say “screw the airline” and just not show up for their flight, especially if the price is less than $200 or even a little bit above. Frankly, that’s what I’d do if I had a cheap ticket and couldn’t fly.

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  • janice

    Agreed, why tell the airline and help them out. You make a good point.

  • janice

    MeanMeosh, yes, people did cheat and would cheat. What I’d do if I were in charge of this is require something like the insurance companies require, a bill with diagnosis. Much harder to fake than a note.