A Primer On the Complex World of Airline Ticket Changes

If you want to change an airline ticket, you’re probably looking for a quick and simple answer as to how much it’ll cost. So why is it that it’s so common for airline websites to bomb out when trying to process a change, if they can do them at all? And if you call 3 reservations agents, why is it common to get 3 different prices? The reason is that airlines have made their change/refund rules so incredibly complex that it’s not simple to calculate. To illustrate the insanity, let’s walk through an example word by word.

Delta Fare Basis Example

Today, I’ve chosen Delta’s VKP65US fare which was filed in the LA to London market when I was writing this post. Don’t worry about all that stuff in the image above. That’s for another post, I suppose. I didn’t pick this for any particular reason. Nearly every airline has complex fare rules and they’re all worded differently. This one is just easy to walk through and helps illustrate the absurdity. (Yes, that’s right. I’m calling this easy.) So, let’s begin.

16.PENALTIES

Fare rules are filed in numerical categories. And Category (Cat) 16 is for penalties. Oh, but so is Cat 31 (for changes) and Cat 33 (for refunds). What’s the difference? Cat 16 is the old-school manual description. Cat 31 and 33 have the rules for computers to interpret for automated changes.

ORIGINATING AREA 1 –

What the heck is area 1? The world is divided into three areas. Area 1 is The Americas. Area 2 is Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Area 3 is Asia/Pacific. So this first round of information is only going to apply to people who start their travel in LA. For those who start in London, there is a separate set of rules which will follow.

CANCELLATIONS

ANY TIME
TICKET IS NON-REFUNDABLE IN CASE OF CANCEL/
NO-SHOW.
WAIVED FOR DEATH OF PASSENGER OR FAMILY MEMBER.

Penalties naturally include both charges for changes and for refunds. In this case, refund rules are very clear. No. The ticket is not refundable at all with one exception: if the passenger or a family member dies.

CHANGES

ANY TIME
CHARGE USD 300.00/CAD 300.00.
CHILD/INFANT DISCOUNTS APPLY.

At first blush, change fees seem to be straightforward as well in that it’ll cost $300. You might be wondering why they would quote a Canadian $300 rate here as well when there is no flight getting anywhere near Canada. It’s because these rule categories use generic text that can be applied to a variety of fares. This can just be applied in Canada without having to change anything.

But now it gets more complex.

NOTE – TEXT BELOW NOT VALIDATED FOR AUTOPRICING.

As mentioned, this is the written description. For automated pricing rules, head over to Cats 31 and 33.

—-TICKET VALIDITY—-
TICKET IS VALID FOR 1 YEAR FROM THE ORIGINAL DATE
OF ISSUANCE AND TRAVEL MUST COMMENCE WITHIN THIS
VALIDITY PERIOD. ONCE TRAVEL HAS COMMENCED THEN
ALL TRAVEL MUST BE COMPLETED WITHIN 1 YEAR FROM
THE DATE ON WHICH TRAVEL COMMENCED.
IF A TICKET IS EXCHANGED OR REISSUED –
1. A WHOLLY UNUSED TICKET MUST BE
EXCHANGED WITHIN THE ORIGINAL VALIDITY
PERIOD OF 1 YEAR AND WILL BE GIVEN A NEW
TICKET ISSUE DATE BASED ON THE DATE OF
EXCHANGE.
2. IF TRAVEL HAS COMMENCED THEN THE
TICKET MUST BE REISSUED AND ALL TRAVEL
COMPLETED WITHIN 1 YEAR FROM THE DATE ON
WHICH TRAVEL COMMENCED.

Tickets expire. So if you bought a ticket on March 15, 2015, travel must start by March 15, 2016. It then has to finish by March 15, 2017. But if you make a change, two things can happen. If you haven’t flown at all yet and need to make a change, then the clock will re-set for travel to begin one year from the date the change is made. But if you’ve already started your trip and need to make a change to the return, then you still have to finish travel within a year of when you first started. These rules can vary by airline and even by fare.

—-TICKET REISSUE PROCEDURES—-
THE VALUE OF THE NEW TICKET CAN BE
LOWER/EQUAL/HIGHER THAN THE VALUE OF THE ORIGINAL
TICKET.
IF LOWER – ANY DIFFERENCE IN FARE LESS THE CHANGE
FEE WILL BE RETURNED TO THE PASSENGER IN A
NON-REFUNDABLE DELTA TRAVEL VOUCHER AT TIME OF
REISSUE.
IF EQUAL/HIGHER – COLLECT THE CHANGE FEE AND ANY
DIFFERENCE IN FARE AT TIME OF REISSUE.
FLIGHTS MUST BE REBOOKED AND TICKET REISSUED AT
TIME OF CHANGE.

Assuming you’re ok to make the change, let’s talk about how it can be calculated. Here, Delta says the new ticket can be higher or lower in fare. If the new ticket is lower, then you’ll get a credit to use on a future trip. Delta is generous here in that it lets you use part of the credit toward the change fee. Some airlines, like United, don’t allow that and you have to pay the change fee separately no matter what. If the fare is higher, you have to pay the fare difference at the time.

US Airways is the most draconian here in that you can have a lower fare, but you’ll forfeit the difference to the airline. That’s why if you’re exchanging a US Airways ticket today, you don’t want to use it for something cheaper or you’re throwing money away. Fortunately this has not translated to American yet. Some airlines don’t let you reissue for a lower fare at all. It’s equal or higher, or it’s not allowed.

–WHOLLY UNUSED TICKET–
I. CHANGES TO OUTBOUND PORTION OF UNUSED TICKETS
A. ISSUE A NEW TICKET – CANCEL AND START OVER
1. MUST USE CURRENT FARES
2. VALIDATE ALL FARE RULES
3. VALUE OF ORIGINAL TICKET LESS CHANGE FEE
MAY BE APPLIED TOWARD THE PURCHASE OF A
NEW TICKET

And now we get to how to actually calculate the fare difference. First, we look at tickets that aren’t used at all. (So changes are being made before the first flight occurs.) If the first part of the ticket is being changed, so someone needs to change when they go from LA to London, then there is only one option. You have to figure out the price of the new ticket using all current fare rules. The original value of the ticket can be applied, less the change fee. This is easy.

II. CHANGES TO CONTINUING/RETURN PORTION OF UNUSED
TICKETS
A. REPRICE USING FARES IN EFFECT WHEN TICKET
WAS ORIGINALLY ISSUED – USING HISTORICAL
FARES
1. NO CHANGES ALLOWED TO THE FIRST FARE
COMPONENT
2. WHEN SAME FARES USED – ALL RULES AND
BOOKING CODE PROVISIONS MUST BE MET
3. NEW TICKET MAY BE LOWER OR EQUAL OR
HIGHER VALUE THAN PREVIOUS TICKET
4. VALIDATE ALL FARE RULES
5. ADVANCE RES IS MEASURED FROM ORIGINAL
TICKET DATE TO DEPARTURE OF PRICING UNIT
-OR-
B. ISSUE A NEW TICKET – CANCEL AND START OVER
1. MUST USE CURRENT FARES
2. VALIDATE ALL FARE RULES
3. VALUE OF ORIGINAL TICKET LESS CHANGE FEE
MAY BE APPLIED TOWARD THE PURCHASE OF A
NEW TICKET

But what if you keep the LA to London as is and you only need to change the return? Well, you can do it the same way as if you’re changing the outbound, but you have another option. If the same fare class is available on the new flight, you can actually back-price using the original date the ticket was issued. These usually means there won’t be a fare difference, though the change fee would apply.

Why is this allowed? I have no idea. It seems like a legacy of the old days for some reason. Maybe some old-timers know. Are you in the fetal position yet? Snap out of it. We’re not done.

–PARTIALLY USED TICKET–
I. CHANGES TO PARTIALLY USED TICKETS
A. REPRICE KEEPING FARES FOR FLOWN FARE
COMPONENTS AND REPLACE UNFLOWN FARE
COMPONENTS USING HISTORICAL FARES
1. NO CHANGES TO FULLY FLOWN FARE COMPONENTS
2. WHEN SAME FARES USED – ALL RULES AND
BOOKING CODE PROVISIONS MUST BE MET
3. NEW TICKET MAY BE LOWER OR EQUAL
OR HIGHER VALUE THAN PREVIOUS TICKET
4. VALIDATE ALL FARE RULES
5. ADVANCE RES IS MEASURED FROM ORIGINAL
TICKET DATE TO DEPARTURE OF PRICING UNIT
6. USE HISTORICAL FARES IN EFFECT ON THE
DATE OF THE ORIGINAL TICKET ISSUE DATE
-OR-
B. REPRICE REPLACING FARES FOR FLOWN FARE
COMPONENTS WITH HISTORICAL FARE/S IN AN
EQUAL OR HIGHER BOOKING CLASS AND REPLACE
UNFLOWN FARE COMPONENTS USING HISTORICAL
FARES
1. NO CHANGES TO FULLY FLOWN FARE COMPONENTS
2. NEW TICKET MAY BE LOWER OR EQUAL OR
HIGHER VALUE THAN PREVIOUS TICKET
3. VALIDATE ALL FARE RULES
4. ADVANCE RES IS MEASURED FROM ORIGINAL
TICKET DATE TO DEPARTURE OF PRICING UNIT
5. USE HISTORICAL FARES IN EFFECT ON THE
DATE OF THE ORIGINAL TICKET ISSUE
DATE
6. REPLACEMENT FARES FOR FLOWN FARE
COMPONENTS MUST BE OF EQUAL OR HIGHER
BOOKING CLASS THAN THE ORIGINAL TICKETED
FARE
7. USE BOOKING CLASS HIERARCHY WHEN
REPLACING FARES FOR FLOWN FARE COMPONENTS
THE HIERARCHY IS
ECONOMY CLASS – Y B M S H Q K L U T X V E
PREMIUM ECONOMY CLASS – W
BUSINESS CLASS – J C D I Z
FIRST CLASS – F P A G
-OR-
C. ISSUE A NEW TICKET
1. APPLY RESIDUAL VALUE /IF ANY/ LESS THE
CHANGE FEE TOWARD THE PURCHASE OF A NEW
TICKET
2. CALCULATE NEW TICKET USING CURRENT FARES
3. VALIDATE ALL RULES

Now we’ve moved on to partially-used tickets. Think of it this way. Let’s say you’re already in London and you hate it over there for some insane reason. Or maybe someone is sick. Maybe work issues came up. You need to change your return. That’s a partially-used ticket and there are three options.

The first option is similar to above. You would just keep the outbound flight (which is already flown) as priced and then reprice the return using that original ticket date. The second option is probably useful if you’re changing where you go next. Maybe you need to fly to Sao Paulo instead of back to LA and the original fares won’t allow that. So the segments that have already been flown will be re-priced using historical fares, as will the new segments. The last option is to just issue a new ticket using the residual amount.

I know, your head is spinning. Remember, this only applies to tickets from the US. For tickets that originate in Europe, it’s a different story. The change fee is 150 euros, and the change wording is a bit different. I won’t bother you with it here, but just take my word for it.

Other airlines put different kinds of provisions in here. Some airlines will allow taxes to be refunded even on a non-refundable ticket. Other airlines will charge the change fee on a per sector basis instead of per ticket, but that’s rare. (In most cases, only the highest change fee applies, you don’t add them together.) Some airlines insert a nasty little clause saying that you can’t hold a credit for future use. If you need to make a change, it has to be done and ticketed immediately at some point before the original flight departs or you forfeit everything.

If you were thinking you could get into a rhythm understanding these changes, think again. Every airline uses a different format for how it presents these details. There is no standard, so you really need to read and read again if you want to fully understand change fees for your specific ticket. Even then you’ll probably get it wrong. Now you can understand why 3 different agents give you 3 different prices.

Now go get a beer. You’ve earned it if you made it to the end of this post.

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