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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30 thoughts on “Stop the presses! United Airlines removes a fee

  1. I can’t help being cynical & snarky by such a move. I would speculate that UAL looked at which hated fee produced the smallest bit of revenue, then saw the opportunity for a bit of PR, calculated the benefit to cost for the airline, and like magic, we’re now nicer to customers! Oh, those other hated fees? You didn’t forget about them in your joy over the one removed fee???

  2. Actually with the luggage fees, I think i know where they are coming from. It is a deterrent fee, they do not want to handle two or three bags per passenger..

    1. I agree. It’s not ‘bringing in more business’, it’s one customer presenting a bigger burden than typically expected, which affects staffing, schedules, expenses, etc. I can agree with the other stuff, but the luggage fee makes sense.

      1. The luggage fee is a legitimate charge for a service provided. It’s a service some customers want and others don’t, and rightly should be charged specifically to those using it, rather than spreading out the cost among all passengers. Further the lighter people travel, the less fuel used, with less cost to the environment. We have to get over the idea of having things “free” if we’re ever going to get serious about climate change.

        1. If the fee for the first bag were eliminated, the boarding times would be greatly reduced allowing the airline to have better on-time arrivals statistics.

          1. Or, the airlines could start boarding ten minutes earlier so as to have plenty of time for an on time departure.

          2. It’s difficult to start the boarding process while arriving passengers are still deplaning or the cabin is still being cleaned. The airline could schedule longer stopovers but doing so means that aircraft are not being fully utilized which impacts the bottom line.

        2. I’m chuckling in that if we really wanted to get serious about (supposed) climate change, then discouraging leisure plane travel altogether would be the idea rather than a token expression of flying with fewer bags. Personally, I don’t get a new iphone ever 2 years. Living frugally for me also happens to be good for the environment in most cases (whether global warming is real or not) but that’s not for this discussion.

          In regards to bag fuel costs and environmental impact, you can find it by google where someone has calculated the cost of fuel per pound per passenger. Whether it’s in your (or my) butt on a seat or in a bag, the cost is calculated to be about half a dollar (perhaps less adjusted for recent price swings in fuel downwards.) For a 40 pound bag, that comes out to about 20 bucks ROUND TRIP cross-country.

          Looking at the blogger’s caculations, it appears that fuel consumption increases slightly exponentially, not linearly, as weight is added to an empty plane. So fuel consumption per pound increases as passengers and bags are added. More bags don’t appear to be a significant logistics issue. But an empty baggage bin is probably something that most bean counters don’t want either. So nearly doubling the price of the second bag appears excessive (especially since fuel is at best half the cost of the bag) and quading it for the third laughable. It’s obviously a junk fee where someone wants and has to travel with 3 bags so why not get the revenue?

          1. Third bags have always been expensive. Those are considered “excess baggage” in most situations. And not sure where you are getting “nearly doubling the price” for the second bag. $25/$35….that’s a 40% increase, not 100%.

          2. Agreed that third bags have always been expensive and that 100% is much worse than 100%. Still, the fees are excessive because (including in the past) because they’re a good source of revenue.

      2. But don’t you think the luggage fees are exorbitant as it gradually gets higher? $100 for taking the same space that someone else’s luggage takes for only $25.00?

    2. Luggage space is a fixed commodity. If one passenger uses it all, then there isn’t any left for another passenger. The sliding scale actually works to ensure that a scarce resource is available to all who need it.

    1. No worries, Alan. I understand there’s a new program in which you input a credit card number and they automatically deduct all fees. Just be careful you don’t max out the credit card… there’s a fee for that. 🙂

  3. Well, I have to say that I think for the large carriers, UAL tends to treat its customers well. I fly a fair bit on both Skyteam partners as Delta Diamond and Star Alliance partners (1k), and feel that United treats me better on a day to day basis than DL in terms of award availability, flight service, etc. I book award travel for family on both airlines and this tends to be the case for them also. I voted yes, but obvious that the way the question was posed was to garner the answer that was given…ie, No. Ie, even when they removed a fee, they get dissed…. 🙂

    1. Exactly, and the same day change fee is $75 for domestic tickets. How can people not get confused about this ? – United !!!, just do away with all change fees and maybe you’ll get passengers running in your direction just for being different. Mindless idiots.

    2. I am confused too? The change fee on a ticket has not been $50.00 for a very very long time? Can someone explain how this makes sense?

    1. In the “old days”, businesses were much more respectful of their customers, and knew that if they treated people with dignity and respect that they would come back. Then the greed started, and “I will charge because I can!” Sorry, but I will wait it out until I find good deals (I love Southwest) then book. Some of you may want to try an new approach to the bag limits. Support the US Postal Services and mail your things in advance to your destination. It is considerably less than the baggage charges! It can be tracked, YOU don’t have to lug around two or three bags, and the post office guarantees their service.

  4. While we all know that many airlines use hedging to protect their fuel pricing long into the future, but fuel has been at record lows for nearly a year now. One would think that in light of these realized expense savings, airlines might consider the goodwill and marketing opportunities associated with removing obnoxious, consumer-unfriendly fees. Instead, according to an AP article from January, they do this: “Airlines will save billions this year thanks to cheaper jet fuel, but they aren’t likely to share the bounty with passengers — not while so many flights are already full. Instead, the airlines will use their windfall to pay down debt and reward shareholders.”
    (http://www.usatoday.com/story/todayinthesky/2015/01/22/why-cheaper-jet-fuel-wont-mean-lower-airfares-anytime-soon/22155781/)

    However, it would appear the impact of lower fuel costs may finally be reaching the consumer: http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-lower-fuel-prices-airfares-20151009-story.html Personally, I’d prefer to pay a higher airfare without all the fees (or at least, with the fees hidden in the total fuel cost–a la what Ticketmaster used to do before going transparent with their fees).

    And the fees for just bags alone are all over the place… http://www.philly.com/philly/business/transportation/20151116_Check_the_Flier_Fees.html

  5. I think what would make many UA passengers happier would be to have less cancellations due to aircraft servicing. I was at BRU earlier today and it was a madhouse as UA cancelled flight 998 to EWR and there were so many people trying to get on my flight and it was a mess.

      1. Sorry I did not express myself properly. United runs their planes ragged and in the last few years is notorious for mechanical problems– I fly them a lot along with Lufthansa and Swiss and I have a disproportionate amount of delays and cancellations with United due to mechanical issues. That makes me think that they delay upkeep. In the last three years I have run about 25% delays/cancellation on United for mechanical issues, and zero percent on Lufthansa for mechanical and 0% on Swiss for mechanical. 35% of my travel is with United, 35% with Lufthansa, 20% is on Swiss, and the remaining 10% is on assorted other carriers. I recently avoided taking a UA direct flight to Europe and took another carrier with a connection so my travel time was longer — planes departed the same hour and I arrived before the UA flight — UA was delayed 3 hours for mechanical. UA needs to do more about the upkeep on their planes. ANd this is not just my imression — WSJ middle seat airline scorecard has ranked United very poorly — most cancelled flight proportionately in 2014, 2nd most in 2013.

      2. United should maintain the airplanes properly and not fly with a worn down fleet. United was #2 in cancellations in 2013 and #1 in 2014 — according to the WSJ — and they are well on their way to holding their position as #1 for 2015 — cancellations due to mechanical issues are up in 2015 according to the WSJ — http://www.wsj.com/articles/united-flights-grounded-due-to-computer-issue-1436361911 — “The rate of delays and cancellations due to maintenance for United’s 767 fleet alone doubled in June from May”– this is indicative of a management problem and doing the minimum as it is not likely that United has a fleet of lemon 767s. . .

  6. Processing fee ? They say nothing about dropping the $75 same day change fee. This will only incense people due to confusion. I can just hear it now – “you’re not going to charge me the $50 ‘processing fee’ but you’re going to charge me a $75 same day change fee – isn’t that the same thing ?”
    United is a mish-mosh of confusion. They don’t even clarify things with their employees and they expect passengers to figure it all out. Psychobabel at best.

  7. The airlines initially said luggage fees were because of the cost of fuel, but all it did was increase the craziness on board with people bringing too much on board as carry Ons to avoid paying a fee. I’ve even seen someone bring a cello on board! I concede and pay to check my bag because I can’t manage it on my own–it makes me crazy when I get to the gate and they announce it’s a full flight and they will check bags to your destination–for free. And again, Southwest allows two bags to be checked without charging for the “service” and still manages to be profitable.

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