Can airlines continue to extract $2 billion a year in change fees from us?


It’s not your imagination: Fixing your airline ticket is more expensive these days. A lot more expensive.

This data from the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics confirms what many airline passengers already know: That the travel industry, particularly airlines, is profiting on one of the most common human impulses: Changing your mind.

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Back in 1990, the industry collected a paltry $50 million in change fees. In total. In 2009, it demanded an eye-popping $2.3 billion.

Notice the big spike in 2007? That’s around about the time airlines raised their change fees to $150 and tightened their ticket change policies. Long-time readers of this site noticed a shift in airline attitudes toward change fees just after 9/11, the era of “no waivers, no favors” when, in many cases, it the amount of the change fee exceeded the value of their tickets.

I took the liberty of estimating the 2010 figure based on the first-quarter numbers, which suggests passengers have put the brakes on paying these fees this year.

If my estimates are correct, then passengers are starting to get wise to these fees and either refusing to pay them or finding a way around them. Either way, I don’t think the airline industry can continue extracting $2 billion in change fees from its customers indefinitely.

Or … can it?

(The chart, above is in thousands — thanks to commenter JS for pointing that out.)

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