United raises ticket change fees by $50, others follow

MIA 033United Airlines has quietly increased the fees it charges for voluntary changes on tickets for travel within North America, and between North and Central America by $50 to $200. The change took effect on April 18, according to an internal company advisory sent to employees.

The decision makes United the airline with the highest change fees in the affected markets. Other major legacy U.S. carriers, such as American, Delta and US Airways, still charge $150, and smaller airlines like Frontier and Virgin America charge $100. Alaska Airlines’ change fees are $75 online and $100 by phone. Those fees, which Southwest Airlines proudly spares its customers, are in addition to any fare differences. Changing the most expensive — or full-fare — tickets doesn’t incur penalties on any airline.

The United fee increase, coming just a week after the carrier was named worst in customer service in a national ranking tracking airline performance, is certain to anger United fliers even further. Industry watchers will be monitoring very closely whether other airlines follow suit — that has been the trend historically, though customer backlash and social media outrage have forced carriers, including United, to reverse controversial decisions in recent years…

American isn’t changing fare-publishing

EF1American Airlines’ roll-out of a new bundled fare structure this week has created some confusion among frequent fliers about what the change means to the way they book tickets. They have nothing to worry about — at least for now. American is not changing the decades-long practice of how fares are published on an airline tariff, and fears of a lack of transparency are misplaced.

You can still see in which booking class your ticket will be issued, though it’s indeed a bit confusing how exactly one would know the difference between the three new fare types by looking at that booking class, which could be the same for all three fares. So let’s break all this down and try to make sense of it.

First, what has American changed? It has bundled products and services that airlines have been unbundling for a few years, though some of those extras like certain seats are still sold separately. When you search domestic fares in the contiguous 48 states on its website, you now get three tabs: lowest fare, refundable (both coach) and Business/First Class. The default tab is lowest fare. In that category, there are three types of fares, as shown below for a one-way trip from Washington to Los Angeles…

How to recognize and fight airline tricks

There have been hundreds of media stories in the last week about the Delta Airlines website “glitch” that overcharged members of its loyalty program on airfare across the board, but what none of those stories tells us is how to recognize and fight such airline practices — whether deliberate or accidental.

As this column has pointed out before, airlines try to overcharge customers all the time, and a decade ago, I used to fall for some of those tricks. That’s why I decided to learn the system — and that’s one of the reasons I wrote “Decoding Air Travel.” If you ever needed proof that knowledge means power, look no farther.

So how could you have known that the Delta website was charging you more than the lowest available fare? First, you have to understand what an airline tariff is: A list of all published base fares on a certain route, along with their rules and permitted routing — they carry a code corresponding to a letter of the alphabet. The second thing is the flight inventory, or the number of seats in each booking class made available on a certain flight…

Why airline alliances are good for fliers

The Star Alliance’s 15th birthday this month reminds me that a global airline alliance is one of the most fascinating concepts in the history of commercial aviation. It’s also an example of the airline industry’s creative thinking aimed at increasing revenues. However, unlike some of the questionable practices I described in “Decoding Air Travel,” this one has dramatically improved the customer experience.

It’s fascinating for me personally, because it combines my two passions and areas of expertise, international affairs and air travel. In fact, what alliance executive teams do every day is nothing short of diplomacy. International negotiations and dispute resolution are two of their specialties, and a big part of their duties is selecting new members, not unlike NATO and the European Union.

When Star was formed in 1997, the idea was not only to represent its members’ best interests — that’s primarily the job of trade associations — but to boost business by feeding passengers from one carrier to another in the smoothest possible way. Soon, airline diplomacy began in earnest — first among alliance members, which after all are rivals in a fiercely competitive industry, and then with airports, transportation authorities and governments around the world. The other two global alliances are Oneworld and SkyTeam…

When airfares jump on you for no reason

I’ve always brushed off suggestions that airline websites are deliberately programmed to increase the fare if you don’t take their initial offer immediately. But I’ve become suspicious since Air Canada’s site recently jacked up a ticket price on me by hundreds of dollars in seconds, even as its lowest published fare and the flight inventory remained unchanged.

Airlines have gone to great lengths in recent years to encourage customers to book tickets on their websites, and that can certainly save travelers time and hassle in the event of any changes to a ticketed reservation. However, to their utter shame, many carriers haven’t built reliable and user-friendly sites. In fact, some airlines, such as South Korea’s Asiana, have outsourced their entire online booking process — at least in the U.S. market — to a third-party travel agency, which charges its own booking fees…