International change fees are out of control
Airlines are in business to make money. We get it.
But, increasingly, they make money not on air tickets themselves, but on fees. And, the biggest fees are often international change fees.
With the exception of Southwest Airlines, which charges the fare difference but no penalty, airline fees are in addition to any fare increase — in some cases, even if the fare has gone down, travelers need to pay the penalty and don’t get any credit for the fare difference.
The explanations for change fees are that they require some amount of work for the airline (maybe, if a travel agent doesn’t do the exchange) and the lost opportunity cost of selling the original seat. Plus, airlines will also say that they have sale fares for those who are willing to lock in plans, and not pay the higher restrictive fares. Fair enough. However, the real reason seems to be, “because we can.”
The new international change fees for many discount business-class tickets to Europe take “because we can” to a new level. $900 plus fare difference. Yes, you read that right. All charged with no announcement or explanation.
At first, I thought it was a mistake, as did the first United agent I talked to. The international change fees for these fares have generally been in the $500 plus fare difference range. But the $900 penalties are for real for cancellation or for any change requiring the ticket be reissued before the first flight. And, while airlines will deny collusion, most major carriers now have EXACTLY the same international change fees on many discounted business class fares to Europe. What were the odds? If a return flight is changed after departure the fee is “only” $500 plus the fare difference.
To be fair, these $900 fees are on tickets that are at least a few thousand dollars, so they are not hitting those who can least afford it. Although, while corporations may be able to absorb the costs, these fees will hit vacation travelers splurging for a special trip to Europe, even if they figure out well in advance that they need to change plans.
In any case, the fees seem more than a little over the top, especially as they are in addition to any fare increases. And they apply to all changes, dates, routings, and even, for example, to changing to a wide-open flight later the same day. Or for adjusting a trip by one day.
The current administration in Washington, which has already scuttled rules requiring airlines to divulge fees, has indicated they are unlikely to rein in airlines with any regulations. Fortunately, within the US there is enough competition that legacy carriers probably can’t get away with doubling domestic change fees overnight. But if they could, they would. Stay tuned, and read fare rules VERY carefully.
Editor’s note: DOT has the power to maintain international change fees at a “reasonable rate.” So far, they have taken a hands-off approach. However, should the consumer groups, including Travelers United, sue the Department of Transportation (DOT) for dereliction of duty, the airlines will be served notice, as will DOT. The lawsuits are underway.