Are airlines unjustly profiting from ticket change fees?

It makes the world go round. / Photo by 401k/Flickr Creative Commons
What’s the best way to correct the name on an airline ticket? If you’re Akshay Malhotra, the answer is: Buy a new one, of course!

In March, Malhotra booked a flight from Newark, N.J., to New Delhi on United Airlines for his wife, using her maiden name, which matched her passport. But in the meantime, she became a U.S. citizen and took his last name. “United is telling me the only way to fix this is to buy a new ticket with the correct last name,” he says.

United doesn’t prominently disclose its name-change policy online, but the industry standard is that minor slips such as typographical errors can be corrected, while major alterations require either a change fee or a new ticket. Airlines say it’s because of post-9/11 security concerns, but critics claim that intentionally vague policies have added millions of dollars in change fees and ticket-replacement charges to the airline industry’s coffers.

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An interesting thing happened this year when a new Transportation Department rule went into effect, allowing passengers to cancel an airline reservation within 24 hours of making it. The rule permitted most ticketing errors to be fixed, effectively threatening an important source of revenue for the airline industry. (Among the major airlines, only Southwest Airlines does not charge ticket change fees.)

As a result, some airlines took an even harder line on name changes. Consider what happened to Belinda Johnson — that’s Belinda with a “B” — when she booked a round-trip airline ticket on United from Cleveland to Paris through Travelocity.

“The ticket agent had a heavy Indian accent, and I did not realize that he had misspelled my name as Delinda instead of Belinda until I called them to find out why I hadn’t received confirmation letters,” she says.

By then, the 24-hour rule no longer applied. Travelocity deferred to United, which said that it allows “no name changes.”

That seemed a little harsh, so I contacted Travelocity and United to see whether I could get the mistake corrected. Charles Hobart, a United representative, said that the airline’s policy on changes is that it has no policy on changes. “Tickets are non-transferable, and the name on the ticket needs to match the customer’s government-issued identification,” he said. “Customers should contact reservations if they have questions regarding an error on their ticket. Of course, we also encourage customers to make certain that the names match before purchasing their tickets.”

Okay, so how about Delinda … uh, I mean Belinda?

“A single letter change shouldn’t be a problem,” he said.

United corrected her ticket.

If you think that this policy — or lack of one — makes it seem as if airlines are trying to cash in on our mistakes, you’re not alone. The rules at other airlines, from Delta (“Name changes are not permitted,” says its site) to US Airways (“If there is a discrepancy [between your ID and ticket], go to the airport ticket counter with your passport to update your reservation,” it advises) are similarly vague, restrictive or both. Only one domestic airline, discount carrier Allegiant, allows name changes for a $50 fee, but with significant restrictions.

After 9/11, many airlines enthusiastically enforced an exact-name-match requirement on tickets, citing security concerns.

To some industry observers, that seemed disingenuous. If the airlines were worried about having the correct names on their passenger manifests to compare against a passenger watch list, wouldn’t they want to make it as easy as possible to get the correct name on a ticket rather than obstruct the process with change fees?

When Secure Flight, the government-run program that compares passenger names against a watch list, took over in 2010, it was decidedly more flexible, using birthdays and other personal information to make sure that you were who you said you were. So it would have various ways of verifying that “Delinda” was actually “Belinda.”

Maybe that’s the solution here, too. If the federal government can determine the identity of a passenger, why can’t an airline?

And if Secure Flight clears passengers with name discrepancies on their tickets through the airport checkpoint, then why not let those passengers board? To do anything less would be to unjustly enrich yourself via the innocent errors some passengers make.

Fortunately, ticket agents understand that mistakes happen. So when Malhotra, the passenger whose wife had changed her name, visited the United ticket counter in Newark and presented her paperwork, the airline employee corrected her ticket, too.

Unfortunately, I doubt that most passengers are that persistent.

39 thoughts on “Are airlines unjustly profiting from ticket change fees?

  1. From someone about as pro-Delta as you can get, I am 100%+1 with you on this one Chris. This is a rule that is just to drive profit. Now, since “interaction” does cost time and money, and we do have 24hrs to check for mistakes, a reasonable fee I bet most would take like $10-25.

    But to have to buy a new ticket is just unreal (the same rules apply to Frequent Flyer tickets too btw). But I also try to AVOID bag fee’s too that are just too high at Delta!

    1. I think that you (should) know that some name changes are allowed if passengers FQTV account is entered.
      The problem here is defining what a spelling correction is as opposed to changing the passenger to a new and different person since the ticket is non-transferable.
      I agree the penalty is too high. But I have no idea how to limit it or force the airlines to lower it. So, it is better to figure out a way to make less mistakes.
      BTW, name changes due to marriage or with court authorizations are accepted by airlines.

  2. This (mispelled names) can often be prevented if you ask the passenger to key in the name that appears in their travel document instead of asking them what their name is and some else keying it in.
    I ask my customers to email the names of the passengers as they appear on their passports, date of birth and gender before I make a reservation for international travel. Then, I email them back a copy of the reservation for them to check first before I get their credit card payment.
    The airline name change policy is, indeed, too strict so you simply have to do something in your side to prevent errors.
    Sometimes when you need to make a new reservation because of a name error, the cheap seat is gone. So you really have to do this right the first time.
    In our travel office, the only people who always commit name errors are those who ask for passenger names over the phone.

    1. Great idea to be sure of the name and birthdate in writing in advance! The only problem I ever had with a ticket was when I used a travel agent who knew my husband through a business connection. She assumed she knew me and despite giving her my credit card with my legal name on it, she issued the ticket in my nickname and used my husband’s business credit card. Talk about a way to irritate two people with one mistake! This was several years ago and she refused to do anything to fix it. I called the airline and was told to go to the airport – which I did several days before the flight, and the agent at the desk easily changed it for me for free. Explaining the credit card reimbursment to the book keeper was far more difficult.

  3. This may be a REAL stupid comment and one that shows my age but I still don’t understand why we aren’t allowed to change whatever we want on a ticket, including transferring it to another person. If I buy a ticket that is non-refundable, why can’t I give it to whomever I want? In this day and age of computers and instant updating, how hard would it be to give the purchaser of the ticket up until, oh say, 48 hours before the flight to name the passenger who is using the ticket? Make the specific flight non-refundable and not penalize the passenger actually paid for a seat on that flight.

      1. I guess that’s true, Franklin. Sometimes I forget the whole world isn’t wired! That said, if I had no internet access, I think I’d track down a TA at my local mall before I made a phone reservation…

        1. I often make travel arrangement over the phone when driving (using my bluetooth). Of course, I limit those arrangements to travel providers that I know well and have my information on file so as to minimize the likelihood of errors.

          Also, some arrangements cannot be made over the internet. For example, Mariott’s BOGO required a phone call to Marriott to set up.

    1. When I’m buying tickets for my unaccompanied minor, my only choice is over the phone. They won’t do them online, because, I think, there’s no way to collect the $75-$100 unacc minor fee at the same time.

      1. There are also airline-specific rules for unaccompanied minors, such as avoiding the last flight of the day, minimum connecting time, additional reservation documentation, etc., that are required, which is why they direct you to the phone.

  4. Are on-line merchants unjustly profiting from shipping & handling charges? Are appliance and car retailers unjustly profiting from multi-year service agreements? Are fast-food restaurants unjustly profiting from the five cents worth of ingredients put into a super-giant-sized soft drink for $2.99?

    Come on. In a free country we buy the package or base charge and all associated charges, should we incur them. How can an airline unjustly profit from something when it is clearly divulged before the purchase? Over and over the web sites say “restrictions” and “change penalties” and “change fees” in red-colored words. The warnings are everywhere that these fees exist if you choose to purchase a ticket from this merchant.

    Is it unjust to make a higher margin of profit from one item than another? Of course not. Loss leaders are common at retailers especially on Black Friday. Should we warn consumers: “Unjust prices. This retailer will be selling below its cost. This is an unjust price. Do not buy this item.” Similarly, airlines sell tickets below their cost of doing business all the time.

    Most times the lowest fare is set to fill the perishable commodity of an empty seat. No expectation of profit is expected from a $188 r/t transcontinental fare. Should we have another warning: “Airline is losing money on this fare. It is unjust to the airline. The airline may impose other charges for water bottles and snack mixes which have unjust profits.”

    Consumers, given enough information, can make their own decisions. We do not need big brother to so encumber the marketplace with regulations as to what is a “just profit” and “unjust profit.” This sounds like the old Fair Trade Price days where a manufacturer could legally fix prices at retailers. This was to make sure there were “just prices.”

    1. Perhaps the word “just” is rather subjective. Maybe more at: “exorbitantly”, ie. it takes very little time / effort to make the change while the airlines are charging a disproportionate fee for it. Sure, they deserve something, but most people tend to think that they’re taking advantage of someone’s misery / bad luck…

      1. True, but no more so than many other private enterprises who do the exact same thing. In other words, the airlines have a lot of company of having their charges bear little relation to costs in some instances. Without belaboring, my point is that if you are going to go coast-to-coast for $188 inc. taxes, etc., then the airline has to make money somewhere else.

        1. As a free marketer I would generally agree with the assessment that companies charge what they want and you buy or don’t buy. However, even in free market theory there are behaviors which are known as opportunistic behaviors which fall outside of the normal free market paradigms. One is profiting from customer mistakes.

          The basic free market maxim is a willing buyer and a willing seller. When you have both who are fully informed, all is good. However, a customer mistake negates the willing buyer end of the equation.

          Of course, this cuts both ways, which I why I don’t hold travel sellers to clearly erroneous sale prices either.

  5. Even after the law went into effect for 24-hour changes, Delta is still kind of cranky about it.

    I booked First Class tickets for late spring – not with miles, but cash – for a MSP-DCA round trip. I hadn’t been paying attention to the equipment (my fault), and I noticed about 30 minutes after I booked that the ~1 pm flight out of DCA was in a smaller commuter jet. Since one good thunderstorm can ground commuter jets at DCA in late spring, I wanted to switch to an earlier flight on a larger plane.

    The computer insisted I needed to pay a change fee for it. No matter how many times I logged in. I would have called, but half the time, they bill you for that now, too, so I just kept the flight. (Which turned out okay, so no big deal.)

    They still do try.

    1. I’ve had a similar situation occur on Delta and learned they WILL NOT charge a customer for a call to straighten out a refund situation. To avoid a fee for issuing a new ticket, you can ask them to issue a credit for the cancelled flight and then return to to book the replacement flights. Make sure that the Delta agent agrees to send email confirmation of the cancellation and the resulting credit.

  6. Having been a long-time participant in your polls, it is my profound feeling that there is a hardcore minority that will always vote “NO,” no matter how well you make your case. I cannot explain their rationale for these naysayers other than their attempt to skew the results.

    1. I voted no. Remember, Chris had stated on more than one occasion that the poll is not always related to the story. If you take the poll question by itself, I felt no was the proper answer. Now…if the poll were something like “Should airlines allow name changes on misspellings and documented name changes?”, I would have voted yes.

      1. mikegun, if it were just a small charge that truly covered only the administrative expense to reissue the ticket – then I would have said no also. The key word here is “unjustly”. You can’t convince me in the least that it costs as much as they charge for someone to go into the computer, type a few words, and reissue an e-ticket or even a paper one. No. If the fee is to encourage people to double check their reservation, then okay, add a few more dollars to it. But the fee is so exorbitant compared to the service – it’s gouging.

        1. I agree. I am speaking about the poll question in general. While a name correction is an example of a fee I disagree with, I am not opposed to the concept of an airline charging fees … or (gasp!) making a profit. As noted, had Chris phrased the poll question to apply specifically to this case, i would have voted differently. A ticket change (not name change) is something I think an airline should be allowed to charge for in the majority of cases.

          I also am not convinced that the profit an airline makes is a direct correlation to the ticket change fees they charge, certainly not in AA’s case.

  7. I did a ticket exchange back in FEB and got a debit memo, which means we got a fine for making an error, except I didn’t make an error, the ARC programming made it but we were suppose to know this little glitch in theri system. Our fines can be from $5 to $200 per ticket. So the carriers are not just dinging the passegners. Oh and my fine, it is on top of the change fee that I had to collect that we keep zero dollars from.
    BTW, not being able to change to a name on a ticket is over 20 years old, so this isn’t something new by any means. I remember booking a ticket for a man whos first name is George. This was booked through a company that put packages together or sold air only on a Mexico charter and this was before the internet. When I got the ticket his first name was spelled Jorge…which is the Spanish spelling for George but not how his name was on his birth certificate (before the passport requirement). I had to pay out of my pocket for the name change and that was back around 1992.

  8. I have an idea for a new regulation on change fees. The airline can charge the change fee, but (and this is a crucial “but”) if that flight is full (standbys would not count towards a flight being considered totally booked) then the airline obviously was able to re-sell that seat and would have to refund the change fee, or at least most of it.

    This makes sense to me from a monetary standpoint. If you cancel a flight and your seat goes empty. the airline is losing revenue and should be able to charge a hefty change fee. But if the airline re-sells the seat, then that loss is negated and the airline’s only expense is about $2 in employee and computer time to change the ticket, so charging $150 in this case is gouging.

    1. That would require monitoring every seat, on every flight for every change/cancellation/rebooking. You equate that expense to a value of $2? Really, only $2? I don’t defend the price of the fees, but as I have stated, over and over, I get why they charge them. I charge fees, too, as does our family business. People use to make committments and stick to them but they don’t any more and there is a cost to the business and it isn’t $2.

      1. But every seat on every flight is monitored via the Revenue Management System. That’s how they know how to price the seat in the first place.

        But Cybersk8r economic are flipped.Travel providers get antsy when the hotel/airline/rental agency is almost booked because it is more likely that your cancellation resulted in unsold inventory. I learned this the hard way 🙁

      2. @ Bodega. You’re wrong. It doesn’t require monitoring EVERY seat. All it takes is determining whether there are ANY available coach seats on that specific flight, at boarding time. If there are, that means “a seat” went unsold due to my cancellation. It doesn’t have to be seat 23A or whatever. This is also why standbys would not count towards a flight being booked and triggering a refund, since standbys pay a much lower fare, or maybe even no fare at all, and a lot of unsold seats get filled with standbys.

  9. I think there are some cases where the fees are unjustified, but most of the time it’s to prevent you from reselling a ticket, and while you and I are harmless, there are some not so harmless people who would be glad to do that for profit (scalpers), nefarious purposes , or businesses who would simply buy tickets with dummy names, filling in the blanks again later according to who actually needs to fly on a given day. I think the no-change policy is one key to there being discounted tickets available to the average traveler.

  10. While a person may change their name by operation of law, such as upon marriage, but name changes can be more certain by applying for, and receiving, a court order to that effect. Presentation of a previously-issued ticket, along with a certified copy of the court’s name change order, then places the carrier in an uncomfortable position. Its failure to provide transportation for the person named (now re-named) on the ticket could constitute the violation of a court’s order, causing the carrier to suffer the consequences of contempt.

    The article notes that Delta Air Lines states on its web site: “Name changes are not permitted.” But such statements are unenforceable, at least to the extent to which they are in conflict with the contract of carriage. In the case of Delta, within its Rule 100 the contract provides that “[t]ickets are not transferable.” Rule 100 also provides that “[t]he purchaser of a Delta ticket and the passenger intending to use such ticket are responsible for ensuring that the ticket accurately states the passenger’s name.” I read the rule as to place a duty on the purchaser and the passenger to have the passenger’s name, at the time of purchase, to have the name of the passenger *at the time of purchase* to be stated on the ticket, and to also have a continuing duty that in the event the name of the passenger were to change, to then update the name of the passenger. The rule on transferability is not violated by a person’s name change, since it is only the *name* and the *person* which is changed.

    Nonetheless, few airline employees are attorneys who are able to fully understand the meaning of the contract, so I would not rely on airport employees being able to interpret and follow the contract. Best to present the ticket and the name change order at a city ticket office in advance.

  11. I thought it was pretty obvious that the supposed enhanced security at airports that for the last 15 years or so have required ID when you go through security are in fact nothing to do with security but are to prevent tickets from being transferred to someone else. When I first came to the USA in 1994 anyone could go to the gate and airlines did not require ID when boarding a plane. I remember when they started requiring ID checks and thinking at the time that it was simply a way of making sure that airlines did not lose out by people transferring tickets in particular unused return portions when someone had bought a return trip because it was cheaper than a one-way. While I would not have used someone else’s ticket in those circumstances, I still never believed that the id checks were really about security. A better fix would have been to stop making round trip tickets cheaper than one way. Like many others, I never felt threatened by perceived lack of airline security before or after 9/11 and today’s intrusive and obnoxious security doesn’t make me feel any safer even though I never felt unsafe in the first place.

  12. The airlines make so much unearned income from change fees that it should be illegal. They do nothing and receive revenue. I think it’s appalling. The least the airlines could do is allow us to change our tix online, as this literally costs an airline nothing.

  13. Late last year, my nephew was arranging his travel to Buenos Aires for his semester abroad. He was 20 years old and not sophisticated at making his own travel arrangements. He found a good fare and booked it with CheapoAir, over the phone. Not sure why he didn’t book online, unless maybe he called them to talk about it and they ended up making the reservation then. Doesn’t matter though. When he got his ticket, he realized to his horror that they’d spelled his last name wrong. He begged CheapoAir to intervene and they refused. Panicked, he called Continental Airlines directly. Luckily, Continental made an exception for him and fixed the name. So I did want to present an example of an airline doing the right thing for someone. But if they hadn’t, it would have been an example of airlines profiting from innocent mistakes made by unsophisticated travelers.

  14. A tangential subject, which is never-the-less in the same catagory of unjustified enrichment on the part of the airlines, are the charges made for changing the time on a flight. Explanation:
    My flight arrived to Atlanta from Europe earlier than expected, and the connecting flight was scheduled to leave in four hours. I noticed that the same airline had a connecting flight to Miami leaving in just 30 minutes. We went to the counter and asked if there was room on the earlier flight and were told, “yes, the flight is half empty.” But there would be a change fee of $50 for each ticket.
    All that was necessary was a few key strokes on the airline’s part, plus the advantage to the airline of freeing up two seats on a later flight if there was a demand for them. I mentioned this to the agent and he agreed, but added “that’s thre rule.”
    I know of no service industry that treats its customers as poorly as do the airlines. Another example: in most industries, good customers are treated well and priviledged. Try to book a flight using miles (only good customes amass lots of miles… right?) and one faces limits on the number of seats available for milage flights, and blocked times.
    The rapid growth of the video conferencing industry is testament to the business community’s efforts to avoid the expenses and problems of flying.

    1. I made a very last minute trip on Jet Blue which was full of snafus but they were wonderful at making changes. The outgoing flight was delayed, but after waiting for two hours, they were able to retrieve my checked bag and reroute me to another airport in the same city – I could get a cab and still be on time for my meeting. I was early on the way back and they had a half empty but delayed flight that would get me home earlier and switched me to it. I think I was the happiest person on the flight – all the others were delayed by three hours, but I was three hours early. No change fees – a lots of praise for their gate agents!

    2. Unfortunately, it is not only “good customers” who have lots of miles these days. With all the credit card offers and other mileage collection methods out there, it is relatively easy to get enough miles for a round the world 1st class tickets and never have flown a single trip on that airline. The result is everyone gets short changed on the redemption process.

      I flew an average of 4 free roundtrips a year on Southwest when they were partnered with American Express on their points program. I simple cashed in the points for the free flights. Southwest never made a penny off me.

  15. Frontier also allows name changes. They treat it as re-ticketing so you pay any fare difference in addition to a name change fee which is $50 or $100 depending on if you bought their cheap ticket or the more expensive ticket. If they can do it, why can’t every airline? Simple. The other airlines know you have to basically purchase a whole new ticket for a name change so they make a lot of extra money when this happens.

  16. I, being a naysayer, I feel that it is important to realize that Chris is really discussing two situations. 1) Being a name change / correction and 2) the title of the article, ticket change fees.

    1) I am allowed a 3 letter typo correction once discovered. When their is a personal name change, it is so easy to overcome; use your previous ID for travel. In this case the passport should not be changed until after the trip, no name change fee required. I even have people using their old passports under their old names for travel. a flaw in our security system; but I cannot dispute their names.

    2) After 24 hours is up, there is only 1 major airline not charging a fee – Southwest Airlines. Your price may go up, but not because of a fee. All airlines post change fees for $50.- $250.00 up front and easily read; not necessarily easy to understand. This fee is made in addition to any price increase occurring since the original reservation was made. If you do not want to worry about these fees, the purchase a fully refundable ticket at 2-5x’s the price. Many of my attorneys travel that way since everything legal changes.

    Can the airlines charge a fee? We are doing nothing to stop them, so they may charge what they wish.

  17. I recently purchased tickets for myself, wife, son, and mother in-law with American Airlines. Afterwards, when I received the email confirmation I noticed my wife’s maiden name was now listed. I called in panic to avoid any issues at the airport, and they told me I would have to pay $150.00 to change her name. I explained that I didn’t recall using her maiden name as she hasn’t used that name in eight years, and tried to get an explanation as to why the fee was so high and why was there no disclosure on any statements or the website about this $150.00 fee, but to my surprise they were extremely rude and persisted that I have to pay the fee and out of ignorance I did. I’m not sure if AA changed her name because it was in the system from our honeymoon eight years prior, or because it saw her mother on the itinerary/ticket and changed it? I know I didn’t type it in. And I also have a co-worker who recently had this happen with another airline, and she hasn’t used her maiden name in over 20 years, but just like us had her mother on the itinerary/ticket. Can anyone please direct me to a contact who can fix this or dig deeper into this scam? Thanks

    1. The airlines were required to change their cancellation policy almost one year ago. If your purchase was ‘recent’ then you should have reviewed your itinerary immediately, which you state you did. If you notice an error, you can contact the carrier within the 24 hour time period from when you paid for the ticket. Some fares don’t allow a name change and the space has to be canceled and rebooked. Advance purchase and ticketing deadlines, if it was a sale fare, can be a bit tricky, so you need to pay attention to all the details.

    2. Hi Derek,
      Have you exhausted your appeals with AA? To find the names of AA’s customer service people, go to the top of this page and click “Wiki”. On the page which opens, click “Airlines”. On the “Airlines” page, scroll down to the tenth entry, which is contact information for AA customer service. Once there, ignore the phone numbers, and click “Read more”. If you haven’t yet e-mailed AA about your problem, click the “Email form” link, fill out the form and submit it. Chris recommends giving them six to eight weeks to consider and respond to your concern. At the end of that time, if you haven’t received a satisfactory response, e-mail one of the AA customer service folks who are named there. If worse comes to worse, you can always ratchet up to the President/CEO whose e-mail address is also listed. Just remember, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, so try to be patient and courteous, and give the folks at this level a chance to work things out. Good luck, and let us know how it goes.

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