United Airlines bids farewell to change fees in push for bookings

CHICAGO (Reuters) – United Airlines (UAL.O) said on Sunday it is permanently eliminating change fees on tickets for U.S. travel effective immediately, the latest effort by a U.S. airline to try to stimulate bookings hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

Chicago-based United is among the major U.S. airlines that began implementing temporary waivers of change fees this year to give passengers more flexibility with their travel plans given the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic.

Now it is making the policy permanent for all standard Economy and Premium cabin tickets and also applying it to any ticket already booked through the end of the year. The standard change fee – charged to passengers who change their tickets – for domestic flights was $200.

In a video message to customers, Chief Executive Scott Kirby said getting rid of fees is often a top request from passengers.

The move matches Southwest Airlines’ (LUV.N) long-standing policy of not charging fees for ticket changes.

Rivals American Airlines (AAL.O) and Delta Air Lines (DAL.N) traditionally do charge for changes. Along with United, they were booking record revenues before the pandemic crushed demand, thanks largely to fees for things like checking luggage or choosing a seat.

In another change, beginning Jan. 1 United will allow customers to list for stand-by for free on a different flight on the same day of travel with the same departure and arrival cities if a seat is available.

Kirby called the moves a departure from decisions airlines had made in the past to survive difficult times, sometimes at the expense of customer service, saying United “won’t be following that same playbook as we come out of this crisis.”

Airlines are burning through millions of dollars daily because of the pandemic, but agree that restoring customer confidence and providing travel flexibility will be key to encouraging people to start traveling again and pave the path back to profitability.

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