Why Does Delta’s Change Fee Schedule Make No Sense? (Ask Cranky)

I haven’t done an Ask Cranky column in awhile, but that hardly means the mailbag has been dry. This one came in at the end of the July.

So why did DL charge me $200 yesterday to change a September booking to a November booking (NY – SFO return), yet when I want to do a same day they will now waive (see below – I am a Diamond). You would think that with Sep/Nov dates they have a lot more flexibility and options to accommodate my requested change vs. same day.

Confused…

Maarten

This is a great question, because it does make you step back for a second and think about why things are the way they are. For the most part, I think these things ended up the way they are because of legacy. But there is some method to the madness.

First, let’s tackle the advance change fee. This is really just due to unimaginative policy creation. It used to be that the cheapest tickets in a market were non-refundable and non-changeable. The only way out of that rule was to get a doctor’s note or something like that, showing that you couldn’t travel. As you can imagine, thatAsk Cranky was ripe for abuse and people hated the policy. A change was made that allowed people to change their cheap tickets for a small fee.

That worked, but the fee kept growing, and growing, and growing. And this year we saw the big guys all settle around a $200 fee. Alaska, seemingly a more enlightened carrier, decided to break ranks and create a fee structure that actually makes sense to travelers. It raised its change fee from $75 to $125 if the change was made within 60 days of travel, but it eliminated the fee on changes made further in advance because there is less risk of lost revenue for changes that far out.

This kind of thinking, however, just doesn’t exist with the big guys. They find it easier to just slap on a flat fee (regardless of elite status, I should add), and then run with it on all changes… for the most part.

That brings us to the second part of this email. Maarten is a Diamond elite with Delta and because of that, he can make changes to any flight on the same day he’s already booked without any penalty. But you don’t have to be elite to benefit from this policy. Even non-elites can change for a $50 fee. (Other airlines charge $75.) What gives?

This one also comes from legacy policy. It used to be that you could standby for an earlier flight on the day you were traveling without charge. The idea was that if there was an empty seat on an airplane before departure, why not let you take it and open a seat on another flight that someone might want? Of course, airlines then started to think about this from the perspective of what it’s worth to you, the traveler. Getting home earlier was a nice benefit. And while you might not pay the full change fee for it, they figured you’d be willing to pay a little bit.

To make the change in policy go down more smoothly, they actually let you confirm on another flight so you didn’t have to sit around and actually wait at the departure gate. You could only do this if the same booking class was available on your new flight (otherwise you could standby), but it was still a clear improvement.

Those who took advantage of the standby option the most, however, were the frequent travelers that were always on business with shifting plans. And those frequent travelers balked at having to pay for it. So the airlines decided to make same-day changes a perk of being an elite member.

This has now become a revenue generator for airlines while at the same time being a valuable perk for those who are loyal. Airlines must believe that if they switched to having a full change fee for same day travel they’d either lose traffic to competitors or they’d earn less revenue when people just opt not to change. It wouldn’t surprise me if that thinking changed at some point, but for now, this is where we stand.

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31 Comments on "Why Does Delta’s Change Fee Schedule Make No Sense? (Ask Cranky)"

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TomSFO
Guest

I assume there will come a point when airlines start losing money because travelers stop flying due to high airfares and tons of fees.

David M
Guest

That’s not the end point, though. Either they adjust capacity and costs downward to reduce demand (that 757 flight becomes a 737, the 737 becomes an E-Jet, the E-Jet becomes a CRJ, and the CRJ flight goes away completely), or they reduce airfares and/or fees to stimulate demand back to match capacity.

David SF eastbay
Member
It really makes the airlines look stupid when a $90 ticket cost $200 to change. If your change is far enough out, just buying a new ticket and loosing that first ticket could be less. Since business travelers change a lot, they are making money on these people since even first and business class fares now a days can be nonrefundable and have a high change fee. Maybe a step fee is better, like 1st change $25, 2nd change $50, etc or a change a month ahead $25, 3-weeks $50, etc. Since just about all tickets are e-tickets there is… Read more »
noahkimmel
Member
Except most airlines still sell refundable tickets. They may be really expensive, but the idea that somehow you are entitled to change it for free (when there is value to you in doing so, and a cost to the airline–actual for work needed or theoretical for planning) is not a fair one to have. I had to buy a new ticket last week when my DL $130 ticket was less than the change fee. It sucks, and may screw up DL planning with more no shows, but ultimately, they can make more money without raising ticket prices and fees that… Read more »
S*A*A*D
Guest
American won’t even let you stand by unconfirmed for an earlier flight anymore unless you opt in for the “Choice Essential” package. I’ve never used it because I’m honestly not sure if that allows you to stand by or if you’re confirmed on an earlier flight the same day. Either way, if you decide to stick to your original flight or no comparable class is available, you’ve rolled the dice on a product you can’t use and they walk away with your fee, thanks for playing! What THEY’VE lost sight of is the benefit early standbys give them: It reduces… Read more »
David SF eastbay
Member
S*A*A*D, so true. You used to walk up to the gate agent and ask to go on the earlier flight and they said sure without even looking in the computer as they new there was a lot of open seats. It used to be move the people out when you can in case there’s a problem later in the day, plus it opens space later in case someone like a business traveler wants to book the later flight you would have been on. They had a better change of selling another seat on a flight 2 hours from now instead… Read more »
DaveS
Guest

They’ve taken all that into account in the calculations, though. They have decided that overall they will make more by charging the change fees. The only way somebody else buying your seat on that later flight could add profit for them is if the flight is completely full otherwise, and even then they’ll probably overbook if it’s a high paying customer. Most of the time they won’t sell your seat anyway, or they would have had other seats to sell. On the other hand, collecting a change fee is money in the bank.

mannarie
Member

It got to come to a point where the Public get totally fed up with all these Fees.
Airlines just keep adding and adding and the public just takes it. Airlines need to realize without people there will be no airlines.

noahkimmel
Member
People only care about the lowest ticket price. Use WN or B6 more and maybe the legacies will adjust. The public complains about a lot of airline behavior, but they vote with their dollars and pick something else. Would you rather have a bundled fare for $20 more? Pay for it! Stop taking Spirit, then complaining about being nickel and dimed. AA’s More Room Through Coach failed because people did not want it, not because the airlines are actively trying to “screw” you. Lastly, for an industry that has lost so much money and has razor thin profit margins, it… Read more »
Ron
Guest
The reason for these particular fees may be legacy, but the principle is simple: charge by value to the customer, not by cost to the airline. Changing a ticket to a different date some time in advance is much more desirable than switching flights on the day of the flight. Customers are therefore willing to pay more, so the airline charges more. Airlines do sometimes waive the same-day change fees in case of delays and cancellations. A few years ago I was connecting on Delta at Salt Lake; when I arrived I found that a (delayed) earlier connection was boarding,… Read more »
Don
Guest
Actually I have to back the airlines in this case. When I would travel I would sometimes have to buy the expensive ticket, because that’s what I needed. And what would happen…..people would show up very early for this flight or a (surprise, surprise) a day early and the airlines would always let them on if there was an open seat. I know this because I would sit by the gate and hear people screaming at the agent about their original flight that doesn’t happen till much later and people screaming, “Come on I paid for a ticket there is… Read more »
stevezwerin
Member
I agree with David SF’s comment 100%. This just happened to me. I had a Delta reservation for the Dorkfest. I got a decent price of $205 roundtrip for SEA-LAX. Unfortunately, due to a conflict, I won’t be able to attend after all, and I had to cancel those flights. I had two choices: not show up for the flights and lose my $200, or pay another $200 for the “privilege” of changing my flights to another day. My new flights, two weeks later, now cost essentially double what I originally paid when you add the change fee. How did… Read more »
A
Guest
Nice little history lesson in clear and concise terms for the in-frequent traveler. Leisure travelers just don’t “get it” because in most services it’s no big deal, like hotel rooms, but there’s a history here and how we got there. I miss status on DL from time to time and get slapped with the $50 same day change fee. While it sounds stupid I think Delta realized the majority of those are being paid by employers. For example, I do a lot of travel in Canada on WestJet. Often I transfer at YYZ where I really have no clue how… Read more »
Olamide
Guest

Cranky or anyone help me to understand why changing affects airlines planing for flights? Am i wrong also to believe that change fees also help prevent more conflicts with oversell situations.

MeanMeosh
Guest
Don brings up a good point about stand-by fees, and one that gets overlooked quite a bit. In the old days of no fees to stand by for an earlier flight, there were some travelers out there who would game the system to get a cheaper fare than they were entitled to. Say, for example, the 3 P.M. departure went for $450 roundtrip, but the red-eye sold for $275. You would buy a ticket on the red-eye, and then simply get to the airport early and ask to stand by on the 3 P.M. Sometimes the flight would be full… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member

Perhaps I made this up, but I thought I heard that a few airlines have given their front line personnel some flexibility to waive the fee to fly earlier if the original flight is in an oversold situation..

I bet the legacys are watching AS’s model. I can see a few who might implement it..

sally65
Guest
The cost of airline tickets has not increased appreciably in the last 15 -20 years. That’s because corporate travel managers and leisure travelers got used to the lower fare prices of airlines like Southwest and JetBlue. There is a line where people won’t pay “more” for a ticket. The airlines make money on business travelers, who pay for the losses on leisure travelers. Despite all the griping about being “fee’ed” to death, the psychology is to find the lowest fare possible. Without these fees, airlines would not be able to be profitable. Even Southwest is no longer the low fee… Read more »
malbarda
Member
I am actually the “Maarten” who asked the question, so: thank you Cranky for addressing it and sharing your point of view. I reached out to Cranky because to me, Delta is perhaps doing itself a great service with the $ 200 change fee’s, but as a Diamond Medallion Million Miler, waiving a short term fee (same day) but charging a “longer out” fee seems counter intuitive with customer service and elite recognition. I am (no longer) traveling on a corporate account as I run my own business. Delta is frequently the cheapest option for cross country travel from NY… Read more »
malbarda
Member

PS – I re-read my post and saw a number of typo’s/grammatical short-comings. These posts can not be edited, so all I can do is apologize for the errors which occur when you write in a hurry. I think the point I am trying to make still works. Thanks!

Evan
Guest
Maarten, Your point about a simple smile is so true. It’s sad when you get better service at a McDonalds than at an airline. As a committed economy flier, I never expect much. But, when the bag drop agent doesn’t make eye contact, the gate agent looks irritated and doesn’t acknowledge my existence, the flight attendants look bored as I step onto the plane and I’m the one who has to say hello, and then a drink is shoved in my face and then trash collected with a command of “give me that!” as recently happened on one Delta flight,… Read more »
Cook
Guest

Given the vast volume of data that the carriers collect about their customer’s flying habits, I have to wonder if they are collecting data that matters..

Javier
Guest

I think this is a kind of technique probably copied by low cost airlines like Ryan air and Easyjet, but Delta instead of not changing the flight use the technique to charge an astonishing price. Viceversa, low cost flight simply don’t change the date and so they force you to buy another ticket. It is pretty much the same action or at least similar but with different logo on the ticket.

trackback

[…] and I don’t always agree about the passenger experience, but in this case we certainly do. Change fees are out of control and their increase last March was one of the features issued mentioned by the Department of Justice […]

David Johnson
Guest
The erosion of benefits is incredible! An unused ticket is a “change” of 200$. They resell that seat. I can see charging a change fee to change a ticket to a new oneā€¦.but charging an additional 200$ when you try to apply a credit from an unused ticket? Love to hear the flight attendants chatting about bids and taking non-rev trips to Hawaii, when I am told I can no longer bring a guest into the sky club—my teenager—like I am going to leave him downstairs and use the club. A great way to squeeze the customer. Even better is… Read more »
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