Airlines desperately need people to fly. That’s why United and Delta are dumping change fees

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A traveler wearing a protective mask uses a kiosk to check-in at a United Airlines Holdings Inc. counter at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. Travel stocks, including airlines, hotels and cruise-line operators, gained some more premarket Tuesday, building on Mondays rally, when Transportation Security Administration data showed airline passenger numbers were improving. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

(CNN) — It wasn’t long ago that airlines were bringing in billions of dollars a year in change fees that could range up to $200 per person per flight. But it’ll be a long time before they charge a change fee again.

When the Covid-19 pandemic wiped out demand for air travel starting in March, the airlines responded by allowing passengers to change flight plans without paying fees. But those waived change fees have for the most part been temporary — until Sunday, when United announced it was dropping most of its change fees for good.

“When we hear from customers about where we can improve, getting rid of this fee is often the top request,” said United CEO Scott Kirby. “Following previous tough times, airlines made difficult decisions to survive, sometimes at the expense of customer service. United Airlines won’t be following that same playbook as we come out of this crisis.”

It didn’t take long for one of its major rivals, Delta Air Lines, to follow suit. Delta announced Monday it would permanently drop most change fees as well.

“We’ve said before that we need to approach flexibility differently than this industry has in the past, and today’s announcement builds on that promise to ensure we’re offering industry-leading flexibility, space and care to our customers,” said Delta CEO Ed Bastian.

American Airlines, the nation’s largest carrier, didn’t rule out dropping change fees when asked about its plans on Monday. (Southwest, the fourth largest US airline, has never had change fees.)

But United and Delta probably won’t be the last to cancel change fees, according to industry experts.

“This is a huge move,” industry consultant Michael Boyd said after United’s decision. “The other major airlines will have to follow suit.”

It underscores that the balance of power between airlines and passengers rests firmly with customers today. That doesn’t happen too often, noted Philip Baggaley, the chief credit analyst for airlines at Standard & Poor’s.

United brought in $113 million in change fees in the first quarter, and $625 million in 2019. Industrywide, change fees brought in $656 million in the first quarter, and $2.8 billion in 2019.

“We are always evaluating the market and we have no news to share at this time,” said American Airlines spokesperson Andrea Koos.

The airlines are responding to the fact that a modest recovery in air travel at the start of summer started stalling out in July, Baggaley said. With the end of the summer travel season a week away, they had no choice but to throw in the towel on anything that might be keeping people from booking.

“The airlines are in a position where they are not generating a lot of revenue,” said Helane Becker, airline analyst at Cowen. “If this gets people to book, that’s a huge positive for them.”

Becker said that most of the fees were paid by business travelers in the past, but most business travel remains grounded — only about 5% of pre-Covid levels by her estimate.

“Even if you want to travel on business, I’m not sure that corporate clients want you in their office,” she said.

And businesses have discovered they don’t need as much air travel as they did in the past.

“The airlines want to retain as much traffic as they can from people who are otherwise willing to hit the Zoom and Skype button,” said airline consultant Boyd.

So the airlines are more dependent on leisure travelers now than they have ever been. In the past, those leisure travelers might have been fairly certain about their travel plans, pegged to a holiday or vacation schedule. But now with new quarantine rules being imposed and restrictions on moving from one state to another, they no longer can make those certain plans.

“When times were good, the airlines wanted to have people think twice before they canceled,” said Becker. “Now, [the end of change fees] this gives people confidence they can book, cancel and rebook.”

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