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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