Hey Delta, how about a refund on those outrageous ticket change fees?

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By Christopher Elliott

A few years ago, we were flying from London to Vienna with our then 13-month old son. Still exhausted from jetlag and maybe a little forgetful, we showed up for the flight 24 hours before our scheduled departure.

But one look at our entourage (the toddler, diaper bags, and the dark rings under the parents’ eyes) must have made the ticket agent feel sorry for us. She booked us on the next flight to Austria without charging any change fees.

Stand-by slip

She could have asked us to pay extra. She probably should have.

But when to bend a rule? Ehud Snir wants to know — more to the point, he thinks his case qualifies for an exception — and wants to know if I agree.

I don’t know if I do. Maybe you can help me figure it out.

Snir and his wife were returning to Minneapolis from Tel Aviv on Delta Air Lines a few months ago, and like me, they go their dates confused.

“We arrived to the airport one day later than our scheduled travel,” he says.

He continues,

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We were shocked at the amount of administrative service charges/fees we were charged. It came to a total of $500.

We flew “stand-by” and were able to fly from Tel Aviv to New York, and then on to our final destination Minneapolis.

Clearly, there were empty seats on the planes we flew, so there wasn’t much of a disturbance to the airlines in accommodating us. In fact, there were at least six passengers in the same situation as we were and there was room for all of us!

We do not argue the fact of our mistake, nor the need for the airline to charge some sort of fee to re-arrange our flights. Our complaint has to do with what we feel was an excessive amount of fees.

Here’s how Delta responded to their written request to refund the fees:

We understand that our passengers face unique situations. However, we have reviewed your concern and determined that the Administrative Service Charge that you paid to change your ticket was correct.

In order to maintain consistency and be fair to all the passengers who travel with us, we need to adhere to the rules that govern the ticket that has been purchased.

Thus said, we respectfully decline your request for a refund.

In this case, a fee applies even if the decision to cancel or change planned travel is due to an illness or other circumstance that was unknown at the time the ticket was purchased or is beyond a customer’s control.

Wrong answer, says Snir.

“This must happen to many people,” he says. “Aren’t folks outraged at the excessive fees?”

Yes, they are. I remember a time when you could get these surcharges waived just for asking. That was a long time ago. Today, airlines rely on these administrative fees to meet their unmeetable profit goals. (Here’s our guide to resolving your consumer problem.)

But who’s to says the ticket agent who handled Snir’s rebooking wasn’t compassionate — after all, Delta might have charged the couple for two new one-way walk-up fares. Technically, weren’t they “no shows”? (Related: Delta stopped flying to Barbados — is our vacation ruined?)

A case might have been made to zero out the rest of the fees, but I’m not sure if it’s something they should expect.

I certainly didn’t when we showed up a day early for our flight to Vienna. Even though the year was 2003, I knew that the carrier (it was British Airways) could have charged us for the reticketing. I was ready. And when it looked the other way and let us on the plane, I was beyond grateful for the help.

My advocacy team and I am reluctant to ask Delta to refund its administrative fees. The Snirs paid a steep price for missing their flight. But Delta was well within its rights to charge them.

Or was it?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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