International airline change fees are out of control!

Airlines are in business to make money. I get it.

But, increasingly, they make money not on air tickets themselves, but on fees. And, the biggest fees are often international change fees.

With the exception of Southwest Airlines, which charges the fare difference but no penalty, airline change fees are in addition to any fare increase — in some cases, even if the fare has gone down, travelers need to pay the penalty and don’t get any credit for the fare difference.

The explanations for change fees are that they cover the work the airline has to do (if a travel agent doesn’t do the exchange), as well as the possible lost revenue if the original seat isn’t resold. Airlines will also say that they have sale fares for those who are willing to lock in plans, and not pay the higher restrictive fares. Fair enough. However, the real reason seems to be “because we can.”

New international airline change fees

The new international change fees for many discount business-class tickets to Europe take “because we can” to a new level: $900 plus any fare difference. Yes, you read that right. All charged with no announcement or explanation.

At first, I thought it was a mistake, as did the first United agent I talked to. The international change fees for these fares have generally been in the area of $500 plus fare difference. But the $900 penalties are for real, and they apply to cancellation or any change requiring reissue of the ticket be reissued before the first flight. (If a return flight is changed after departure, the fee is “only” $500 plus the fare difference.) And, while airlines will deny collusion, most major carriers now have identical international change fees on many discounted business class fares to Europe. What were the odds? If a return flight is changed after departure the fee is “only” $500 plus the fare difference.

Fair?

To be fair, these $900 fees are on tickets that cost at least a few thousand dollars, so they are not hitting those who can least afford it. Although, while corporations may be able to absorb the costs, these fees will hit vacation travelers splurging for a special trip to Europe, even if they figure out well in advance that they need to change plans.

In any case, the fees seem more than a little over the top, especially as they are in addition to any fare increases. And they apply to all changes, dates or routings — and even, for example, to changing to a wide-open flight later the same day, or for adjusting a trip by one day.

The bad news

The current administration in Washington, which has already scuttled rules requiring airlines to divulge fees, has indicated it is unlikely to rein in airlines with any regulations.

Fortunately, within the U.S. there is enough competition that legacy carriers probably can’t get away with doubling domestic change fees overnight. But if they could, they would. Stay tuned, and read fare rules very carefully.

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About the Author
I've been in the travel industry since I graduated from Stanford. Back in the days when computers were new, and air travel was comfortable. These days I'm also a travel and comedy writer. All opinions are strictly my own, and not necessarily those of Elliott.org
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