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

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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 our return flight from Tahiti to Los Angeles had been canceled.

I called Virgin America and was told that it would cost us $180 to change the flight to the next day, when our new flight was scheduled.

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.

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 sometimes plans change, which I understand. 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?

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: You used a travel agent to make your booking, and if you did, then your itinerary should have been connected. That means Virgin America should have known about your change and would have put you on the next flight at no cost to you.

(Actually, that’s one of the reasons you use a travel agent; they can ensure your itineraries are connected, preventing you from being stuck in an airport with no way to get home.)

Your travel agent should have told you that your Los Angeles to San Francisco flight was taken care of. When you called Virgin America, the representative you spoke with should have also seen that you were flying in from Tahiti. But somehow, these flights were not connected.

This is a common problem with do-it-yourself travel agents. They buy several legs of a flight separately, assuming that they’ll be taken care of when something goes wrong. But they aren’t. You’re considered no-shows when the flight is delayed or canceled and are forced to pay for a new one-way ticket to reach your destination.

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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