Should airlines charge a change fee even if they can resell the seat?

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By Christopher Elliott

When part of his flight itinerary changes, Bret Bickar is asked to pay a change fee in order to get back home. Is that unfair? He thinks so. His airline doesn’t. Who’s right?

Question

We recently booked a one-way ticket from Los Angeles to San Francisco on Virgin America to get us home after our trip from Tahiti. But about a month later, our travel agent informed us that they had canceled our return flight from Tahiti to Los Angeles.

I called Virgin America, and they informed me that changing the flight to the next day, when our new flight was scheduled, would cost us $180.

There are more than four months between now and then to resell those two seats. If those four seats were not rebooked in the next four months, I would be OK with getting charged or losing my money.

If the airline does not rebook those four seats in the next four months, I would be okay with being charged or losing my money.

Virgin’s “guest services commitment” promises the airline is “constantly striving to give you the kind of Virgin America experience you came to us for in the first place.” I can’t believe that an airline is so steadfast in a policy that it can’t work with a customer.

Vacationing is supposed to be relaxing and enjoyable, and I understand that plans sometimes change. What I don’t understand is that when things do change, why an organization like Virgin America has to make it stressful and inconvenient on their customer’s pocketbook. — Bret Bickar, Alameda, Calif.

Answer

You’re right, there’s something fundamentally unfair about airline change fees. If an airline can resell the ticket, why should you have to pay for the change?

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But Virgin America is doing what other airlines also do, and have been doing for a long time, and I don’t have the room for the argument in this column.

Here’s what struck me about your case. If you used a travel agent to make your booking, they should have connected your itinerary. That means Virgin America should have known about your change. They would have put you on the next flight at no cost to you.

Connecting the change fee dots

Actually, that’s one of the reasons to use a travel agent. They can ensure your itineraries are connected. It will prevent you from being stuck in an airport with no way to get home.

Your travel agent should have informed you that they took care of your Los Angeles to San Francisco flight. When you called Virgin America, the representative you spoke with should have also seen that you were flying in from Tahiti. However, the travel agent did not connect these flights. (Related: My flight was canceled. Can I get a refund on the change fees?)

This is a common problem with do-it-yourself travel agents. They purchase several legs of a flight separately, assuming that someone will take care of them when something goes wrong. However, this is not the case. If the flight is delayed or canceled, the airline considers you a no-show. You must then pay for a new one-way ticket to reach your destination. (Here’s how to use your airline flight credit.)

I asked Virgin America to look into your itinerary. It refunded your change fee and allowed you to fly one day later at no extra cost.

Should airlines charge change fees even if they can resell the seat?

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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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