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Airlines try to attract more travelers by killing fees, lowering prices and stepping up pandemic precautions

  • Author: Scott McMurren
    | Alaska Travel
  • Updated: September 5
  • Published September 5

Airline fees are one of my favorite subjects.

The fees are named different things: fees, fuel surcharges and “carrier imposed charges.” There’s also a host of government-imposed fees and taxes.

Rarely do these fees, once imposed, go down. It’s rarer still that they are eliminated.

But last week United Airlines took a bold step and did away with their change fees for most fares, which sometimes amounted to $200 per ticket, according to travel expert Johnny Jet.

The new policy does not apply to United’s “Basic Economy” fares, which typically are non-changeable and non-refundable. Even so, Basic Economy tickets can be canceled without penalty through Dec. 31, 2020, on United. Most airlines, including United, have been allowing changes and cancellations due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Remember: United is the only major airline that charges you extra to bring aboard a regular-sized carry-on bag. You must purchase a higher-priced ticket to bring your carry-on in the cabin.

United also announced that travelers will be allowed to fly standby on the same day for no additional charge.

Chances are, though, if you change your ticket, you’ll likely pay more. That’s because even if there’s no change fee, you’ll have to pay any additional fare for your new flight.

For example, say you’re flying to Denver next week and your ticket cost $500. But a ticket on the day before costs $600. If you want that seat, you’ll still have to pay the $100.

“I kinda feel for all those airline reservation agents over the next few months having explain the distinction between a fare difference and a change fee,” said Scott Laird, who has worked in reservations for a major airline.

The day after United made their announcement, Delta, American and Alaska Airlines got rid of their change fees, except for the “Basic Economy” or “Saver” fares. Like United, though, Alaska Airlines and Delta are waiving fees (even for Saver fares) through Dec. 31, 2020.

There are some differences, of course. First, United’s policy is nice to know, but the airline only has one flight per day between Anchorage and Denver. Right now, United has a policy that if you want to change a ticket and the new ticket is cheaper, the airline will not give you a credit for the difference. United will waive the change fee — but you’ll forfeit any fare difference. Of course, you’ll have to pay more if the new fare is higher.

Delta, on the other hand, will issue a credit if your new fare is lower. It’s unclear whether Alaska Air also will issue a credit, but I am confident they will.

Airlines are doing their best to coax travelers back in the air. Each carrier takes a different approach. For example, United chose to get rid of the change fee, but has no problem filling all the middle seats. Delta has taken a different approach by blocking all middle seats on its 737s through Jan. 6, 2021.

All of the major airlines, including Delta, American and Alaska, have doubled down on cleaning their planes, mandating masks in-flight and minimizing touchpoints through the travel experience from check-in to bag claim.

Then there’s cutting prices. It’s a time-honored tradition with airlines — and the COVID-19 crisis is keeping fares down.

Right now, American Air is using its two nonstop flights (Anchorage-Dallas and Anchorage-Chicago) to offer discounted flights around the country between Sept. 15 and Oct. 6.

The cheapest fares are split into three categories:

First, nonstop flights from Anchorage to either Chicago or Dallas are just $109 each way. Even if it’s in “basic economy” on American, you still can drag your standard-size carry-on into the cabin with you. These flights operate every day through Oct. 6. Travelers earn Alaska Air miles on all American flights.

Second, flights west of Omaha are available for as little as $114 each way. All the flights connect through either Dallas or Chicago. Destinations include Albuquerque, Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, Reno, San Francisco, Sacramento, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Fresno, Colorado Springs and Durango. Hubs like Denver and Salt Lake City are not included. Cities in the Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Washington and Idaho) are not included.

Third, flights to most destinations in the eastern U.S. are priced at $144 each way. Cities in Texas (except Houston), Louisiana and all the way up the Eastern Seaboard are priced at $144 each way. That includes Washington, D.C., New York, Boston and lots of destinations in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. In some cases (but not all), other airlines have matched the fares.

I expect airlines to play their best hands to coax travelers back in the air, whether by fee waivers, deep cleaning or discount fares.

But there’s another big change for travelers coming in October. Airlines have announced plans to lay off tens of thousands of workers due to depressed travel demand in the wake of COVID-19. The layoff numbers aren’t set in stone and may be impacted by future federal aid to the airlines. But the airlines will get smaller this fall — and that will impact prices and schedules going forward.

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