If they didn’t tell me about this $200 change fee, do I still have to pay it?

A few weeks ago, Chris Singh was scheduled to fly from Minneapolis to Norfolk, Va., on United Airlines to rent a vacation home. Unfortunately, Hurricane Joaquin paid the area a little visit, too.

“The area was flooded and my destination was a beach house that was right on the ocean,” he says. “It was foolish to go, so I canceled.”

Had United canceled his flight to Norfolk, then he would have been given a full refund. But it didn’t. His vacation home might have been under water, but not the airport.

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“I called several hours before my flight to ask about refunds or credits and was told that I’d get a credit for my flight that was good for a year,” he says. “That representative did not tell me that I’d have to pay $200 for the privilege of using that credit in the future.”

The United rep should have disclosed the fee, of course. It may be well known to readers of this site, but remember, most Americans get to their destinations by car and darken the door of an airport only rarely. Back in the pre-deregulation days, people wouldn’t fly because it cost too much. Today, they don’t fly because of the high hassle factor. But I digress.

Singh sent an email back to United, asking for an exception. Here’s how it responded:

I am sorry you are disappointed with the decision to operate flights on October 1. Safety is our number one priority and we would never jeopardize the safety of our passengers and crew. Despite the weather conditions in some areas, we operated regular schedules for most of our destinations.

Although we had a waiver in place for the Bahamas due to Hurricane Joaquin, the flights you were scheduled for on October 1 and October 5 operated on schedule. We offer waivers when we need to cancel flights at a location due to extreme weather, but we never cancel flights if it is safe to fly.

Our first priority is safety and operating our flight schedules for all of our passengers is equally as important. I am sorry for any confusion about this policy.

Let’s skip the whole double standard debate that inevitably arises. I mean, Singh canceled plans because of a circumstance beyond his control and has to pay $200, but if the tables are turned, United is able to cancel its plans without paying any kind of penalty. Fair? No. But let’s move on.

The question here is: if a representative didn’t explicitly tell a customer there was a fee, do you still have to pay it? And that’s a valid question.

It doesn’t matter that United’s $200 change fee is well disclosed on its site and that most air travelers know about change fees. What matters is that a representative omitted mention of the change fee when Singh called to cancel his flight.

“I find this policy absolutely crazy,” says Singh. “I realize it’s standard practice in the industry, but having a hurricane and a state of emergency being declared in the place you are flying to are clearly extraordinary circumstances.”

Yes, they are. And yes, it’s crazy that United would throw the book in his face. But that’s the airline industry for you.

United eventually agreed to waive half of Singh’s change fee. He’d like us to get a full waiver.

I’m actually surprised the airline went as far as it did. Maybe someone over there felt guilty about the fees. After all, the change fees can negate the entire value of some United tickets, meaning that it’s not even worth calling the airline to cancel.

In fact, many unhappy customers don’t even bother. They’d rather the seat fly empty than allow the carrier to resell the seat and make even more money. What a strange world we live in.

I’m not really sure if getting involved would do much good, but I will if you ask me to.

Should I take Chris Singh's case?

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22 thoughts on “If they didn’t tell me about this $200 change fee, do I still have to pay it?

    1. Should we also love street robber if he took only half of our wallet’s content after we told him the righ story.

      Would you like to pay $200 for the privilege of buying the ticket on top of the airfare, seat assignment, use of air on flight, use of toilets on flight, seat cleaning fee and window washing fee.
      Some airlines already charge for the privilege of buying the ticket on line, some charge for the privilege of buying it at the real location, some charge the fee for not having boarding when checking in. Is this all OK.
      When and how we’ll start charging them for the privilege of selling us the ticket?

        1. “non-refundable” — may mean anything.
          Airline is retaining the money in its account for you to use. Leaving alone the fact that this is purely anti-competitive, where in the phrase “non-refundable” you see the real hook – “we”ll keep it safe for you for one year only aftert that it is ours, and if yuo wish to touch it pay up $200 more.” It is simply remains a highway robbery simply because there is no competiton in the air and we have no option for us. Purchase of “full” price ticket that is 10-20 times costlier that the real daily price – is a false option. This is not free market.

          1. Trip insurance is very restrictive – and anything not close enough to a near death experience may not trigger it.
            But I have a better one along those lines – do not buy a ticket – and all problems disappear.

  1. So let’s say the rep had said there’s a $200 change fee to use the credit. Would the OP have gone to his flooded beach house? Would it have been any less ‘foolish’ to go knowing there was a fee?

    Of course not.

    1. Kindly review or look for Wiki on contracts.
      But without going into the contract law, had he been informed that there is a change fee – he would have a choice of not cancelling the reservation.
      He still would not be refunded the money – but at least he would have a satisfaction that his seat was waiting for him.

  2. Is there any evidence the rep didn’t actually state the fee? If he is a neophyte, as the article suggests, he may not have been focused on listening to all the details, and didn’t distinguish in his mind between a flight credit and a fee. The line about people not flying because it’s too much hassle reminds me of Yogi Berra’s line about the restaurant nobody goes to anymore because it’s too crowded.

  3. “If I didn’t hear him say there was a fee, do I have to pay it?”

    Yes, the fee should be emphasized in the script. But it’s certainly not hidden. A learning moment for everyone.

  4. It is absurd to refuse this change. I looked on-line to see what the state of emergency required, and since the governor was ordering evacuations of areas threatened by severe weather, to expect anyone to fly into an emergency is ludicrous. At one point, a category three hurricane was forecast to make landfall between Cape Hatteras and the Chesapeake Bay. You don’t fly into that unless you absolutely need to.

    https://governor.virginia.gov/newsroom/newsarticle?articleId=12936

    http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/archive/2015/graphics/al11/loop_5W.shtml (See frame 16 in particular.)

    Airlines ought to be required to waive change fees under these circumstances, up to the point of time when the threat passes.

    1. And United did fly in because the weather did not turn out as predicted. It’s not the fault of the airline that his rental flooded.

      1. Correct – they don’t waive the rules until positive the flights will NOT be operating – not just “in case” they don;t. I often tell my clients to just hold on, waiting a bit longer may give you the result you actually prefer, whereas when YOU decide to make the choice to cancel, they are no longer responsible

  5. I do not know how did it come to the existence of change fees.
    In the old days there was no such fees. You could take your paid take to any airline and use it as cash to buy a ticket.
    The deregulation changed all that. At first the change fee was at $25 level and was justified by the airlines by this:”our agents need to spend time to do it”. It was lame back then, but then something happened and the fee creep took it to the $200 – which is piratically the price of the ticket for some transcon one way flights.
    The change fee is asymmetrical, i.e. there is nothing comparable that would require the airline to pay similar change fees if they changed the flight – in courts of equity the ticket change fee should not be enforced as it does not pass a smell test for being an enforceable contract element. Not to mention the non-refundable tickets plausible illegality. Why: when car rental company wants compensation for lost income because their car was in repairs – the insurance company demands proof that that would show that the car had a chance of being rented at all during that time and that the actual time the repair took and that it was reasonable.
    Why would airlines were allowed to keep our money without showing that they tried to sale to seat and that they had a chance to sell the seat. If they claim a loss – they need to prove it — which they never would be able to do.
    But here we are – time for a revolt. I would dream about some good soled lawyer draft a boilerplate complaint to small claims court for all of us to use; formulate legal arguments and provide citations in support.

    1. It is actually in place to ensure they can properly determine the load factor of flights – and with people who change as often as they do nowadays, it is a preventative measure put in place, or there would be no way to control those factors, and we would go BACK to the prices of pre-regulation days.

  6. It sounded like the OP cancelled the flight before checking on reimbursement, in which case, the mistake was theirs.
    Do we believe that undisclosed fees shouldn’t be paid? Many times taxes aren’t “disclosed” but we still pay them. Just saying.

  7. because of dodgy U.S. lawyers, if airline had to read all the conditions of tickets, you’d be on hold for hours. Not practical.

  8. Because this wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill excursion, and involved (probably) expensive rental housing, etc., (drum roll): buy travel insurance. I agree with the commenters here, regarding change fees, non-refundable tickets, etc. However, until Christopher Elliott, and others like him prevail with lawmakers, the airlines will continue to gouge us; buy the insurance.

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