Help! The ticket cost $157, but the change fee was $200

Airlines love to talk about how they offer customers “options” when they tack fees and surcharges on to a ticket. But when Laura Anderson contacted me about a US Airways reservation, she didn’t feel like she had much of a choice.

Anderson was calling about a ticket for her partner, who had visited his family in Tennessee a few weeks ago.

On the evening of Aug. 29, two close friends were killed in a car accident. “He missed his flight home the next morning,” she says.

Anderson, a student who lives in St. Petersburg, Fla., tried to fix his flights for him.

“I called to change it and I was told it would be a $200 change fee,” she says. “The ticket was only $157.”

Anderson didn’t know what to do.

“Is there any way for them to make an exception and just refund the money? Is there a way to make them understand? I just need help because I’ve been crying about this for hours, and I am just beside myself,” she told me.

I could share her case with US Airways, but I already know what it will say — and so do you.

It will say that Anderson’s partner should have purchased travel insurance. That he could have bought a more expensive, unrestricted ticket, which would have allowed him to make a change. But one thing it will tell me, without question, is that the $200 change fee is non-negotiable. (Indeed, if he missed the flight, it’s doing him a favor by offering a change fee; according to its rules, it could just keep the ticket.)

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The airline industry has clawed its way back to profitability by charging oversized change fees: $2.8 billion last year and $2.5 billion the year before.

One thing the airline industry won’t talk about is how many of those seats it can resell, thanks to its sophisticated yield management systems that predict how many passengers will change or cancel a seat. It doesn’t like to mention its outrageously high load factors that, thanks to technology and consolidation, are inching higher all the time.

But customers like Anderson want to know: Did you resell my partner’s seat to someone else?

Airline apologists and insiders will say, “Well, hang on! US Airways is just making money where it can, like any good business.” Sure, but there’s a line between making an ethical profit and profiteering, and with Anderson, many passengers and consumer advocates will say, the line’s been crossed.

It’s not hard to peel back the layers of rhetoric to see the problem. First, how much of a choice did Anderson have, when it comes to airlines? Thanks to the recent wave of airline mergers, no one would argue that he had more options. Definitely fewer, and perhaps just one.

Should he have bought insurance? Sure, but he may have assumed the airline would make an exception if tragedy struck. Many people still do.

How about a less restrictive airline ticket? Well, I looked up the price of an advance-purchase roundtrip ticket from Tampa to Nashville on US Airways. A restricted economy class ticket is priced somewhere between $146 and $198 per segment, versus $370 and $730 per segment for a “flexible” economy class ticket.

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Who in their right mind would pay $730 for a flight segment in exchange for more flexibility? If you said “business travelers on expense accounts,” then give yourself a gold star.

So Anderson had two choices after the tragic car accident: Ask the airline for an exception or pay for a new ticket. She chose the new ticket, which cost a little less than the change fee.

I can’t think of any other business that operates like this. The usual rules of common sense, decency and fairness just don’t apply to your airline ticket purchases. The federal government, which regulates the airline industry, has given them permission to treat us like this, and the airlines say that by voting with our wallets, you and I and passengers like Anderson have offered our tacit approval. (By the way, next time that happens to you, consider reaching out to your elected representatives to complain — that’s why they’re here.)

So why does this feel so wrong?

Of course a story like this will get the usual comments from airline defenders and frequent fliers, who will use propaganda-like phrases such as, “Want first class? Buy first class!” And then others who will say, “Would you rather fly on a bankrupt airline?” I’m already rolling my eyes.

But I don’t think Anderson wants US Airways to go out of business. She’d just like a little fairness and compassion — and she wants the change fee to be reasonable. Is that asking too much?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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