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Why Some Major Airlines Are Dropping Change Fees

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

If you fly frequently, this probably sounds familiar. You need to make a change to your flight and find out it will cost you $200, maybe more than the cost of the ticket. But now that airlines are suffering huge coronavirus losses, they're hoping to lure back business by doing away with change fees. United, Delta, Alaska Airlines and American Airlines all announced new fee policies in the last two days. For more on this, we have Victoria Walker, a reporter with the travel website thepointsguy.com.

Welcome, Vikkie.

VICTORIA WALKER, BYLINE: Hi, Sacha. Thank you for having me.

PFEIFFER: I'm glad you're here. Now, these fees have just been despised by travelers for years and complained about for years. Why are the airlines finally getting rid of them now - or some airlines?

WALKER: So United's CEO - and again, you know, United was the first legacy, Big Three carrier to announce that it was getting rid of change fees. In the video, United's CEO said that getting rid of change fees was a top request from travelers. And these are moves that are clearly aimed at getting folks to travel. Air travel's still down even though the summer and fall months are prime times for people to travel. People are understandably nervous about traveling, and they want to have protections in place in case they need to change or cancel their tickets.

Moves like this - these are, you know, real examples from the airline industry that, you know, they're starting to listen to travelers more and give travelers more flexibility in case they do need to change their tickets or cancel their tickets. You know, the airline industry is, you know, starting to realize that they're going to need to do more to convince folks to travel. They're going to need to, you know, be more flexible instead of, you know, perhaps maybe driving or just staying home altogether.

PFEIFFER: I was startled this morning to read how much revenue the airlines have been earning from change fees - last year, American alone, more than $800 million. That's huge. On the other hand, it's much less than they lost last quarter. Are they hoping that by giving up that change fee revenue, they'll spur enough additional flying to make up for that lost revenue?

WALKER: It certainly appears that way. Air travel is completely down. We are starting to see, according to TSA numbers, that more folks are starting to take to the skies. We saw TSA numbers hit over 800,000 last month. It seems like the pandemic was kind of the straw that broke the camel's back in terms of getting rid of these fees.

PFEIFFER: I mean, it's certainly not just benevolence. It sounds like, also, financial desperation.

WALKER: Correct.

PFEIFFER: You mentioned, by the way, 800,000 TSA count last month. What would that compare to for, say, a year ago? So 800,000 is still a pretty small amount of people.

WALKER: Eight-hundred thousand is still very low. This time last year, just given kind of the same weekday, over 2.2 million travelers took to the skies. And so that is a markedly wide gap in terms of, you know, folks who are traveling.

PFEIFFER: Although if a lot of what's keeping people out of airplanes is fear, do you think the elimination of fees and the flexibility that allows is enough for people to overcome their fear?

WALKER: It could. You know, there are some airlines who have implemented social distancing policies, such as blocking middle seats that we saw with Delta and Alaska. This could be a real simple way to convince those folks who are on the bubble saying, you know, I'm really not sure if I really want to do this.

PFEIFFER: Do you know whether these are temporary measures to lure about customers in the short term, and will the fees come back once the airlines are more financially stable?

WALKER: United said that the change was permanent. In the video, he used the word forever in the announcement. It appears that, you know, a lot of these changes are going to be permanent. You know, forever is a very heavy word. And it really appears that, you know, the days of change fees - these $200 fees that nobody has ever liked - it really seems like those days are beyond us.

PFEIFFER: That's Victoria Walker, a reporter for the travel website thepointsguy.com.

Thank you.

WALKER: Thank you so much for having me, Sacha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.