Stop the presses! United Airlines removes a fee

That’s no typo. United Airlines actually removed a fee.

Really! It did!

The airline quietly deleted a wildly unpopular rebooking surcharge, and there’s more to come from an airline that has promised to be more customer friendly.

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Since I go out of my way to write about new fees of any kind — but especially airline fees — it’s only fair that I’d offer the fee removals equal time. I’m not required to, like my big-media brethren, but I want to.

Here’s the note that went out to all United employees last week:

When customers are going through a difficult time and need to cancel or change their travel plans unexpectedly, we’re not going to charge them a processing fee.

Effective Nov. 2, we discontinued the $50 processing fee charged for ticket and/or change fee refunds due to unplanned events such as jury duty, illness or death.

“We know that our front-line employees want to help our customers in their time of need,” said Customers SVP Sandra Pineau-Boddison. “Eliminating the processing fee is the right thing to do and will create a better experience for the customers and for our people.”

There are no other changes to the death/illness/jury duty/unplanned situations refund policy.

I asked my United contact about this.

“It’s one of several things the airline has done for customers and employees and portends a new, stronger focus at United on customers and employees,” he told me.

In other news, United has also reached an agreement on a contract with the mechanics and related employees, and committed to halt its heavily criticized airport outsourcing for the next several years. More announcements to come soon.

That’s a great start, but much still needs to be done. The outsourcing doesn’t need to just be stopped; it has to be reversed. The fees don’t just need to be eliminated for some passengers, but for all passengers.

(Inevitably, here’s where someone asks: How can Southwest not charge these fees and still turn a profit?)

If United wants to win passengers back, it still has a lot of runway ahead of it. Which policies would have to be lifted in order for you to believe the company?

I can think of a few:

Luggage fees. United’s sliding scale of luggage fees makes no sense. Why does the first bag cost $25, the second $35 and the third $100? The rates should go down as you add more bags. After all, you’re giving the airline more business. How ’bout a volume discount?

Award ticket fees. As much as I dislike loyalty programs that turn otherwise sane and reasonable people into lemmings, I stand with these addicts on the matter of fees for booking award tickets. United is essentially offering a “free” ticket and then charging you for it. Because it can.

Junk fees. United has so many junk fees, it’s hard to track them all. But how about we start with that $50 fee for paper tickets? Or the $25 “service charge” for ticketing with a United representative by phone or $35 charge for ticketing in person at the airport.

United’s customers are 100 percent behind the reforms at the airline. Lifting the rebooking surcharges is a step in the right direction. But United needs to take a leap toward us if it’s serious about customer service.

Now that’s a story I’d like to cover.

Is United is committed to being more customer-focused?

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