Game Changer: United Permanently Removes Change Fees

Out of nowhere, United announced today that change fees are now gone for travel within the US. This is applicable to all tickets issued beginning January 1 2021 for all domestic travel (including Alaska, Hawaii), Puerto Rico, and US Virgin Islands – but not Guam or Saipan. Canada is excluded as well. All fare classes in all cabins except basic economy tickets are eligible.

There’s more: Same-day standbys will become free to everyone (currently $75 USD). For MileagePlus Premier Silver members, same day change will become free (also $75 USD currently) if seats in same fare class are available. 

Meanwhile, for existing tickets issued after March 3, current change fee waivers have been extended to (at least) December 31, 2020. This includes international and basic economy tickets.

See the detailed press release:

CHICAGO, Aug. 30, 2020 /PRNewswire/ — The only thing constant is change and at United Airlines, some of the fees associated with changes related to flying are gone for good. The carrier announced today that it is permanently getting rid of change fees on all standard Economy and Premium cabin tickets for travel within the U.S., effective immediately. And starting on January 1, 2021, any United customer can fly standby for free on a flight departing the day of their travel regardless of the type of ticket or class of service, a first among U.S. carriers, while MileagePlus Premier members can confirm a seat on a different flight on the same day with the same departure and arrival cities as their original ticket if a seat in the same ticket fare class is available.
United is also extending its waiver for new tickets issued through December 31, 2020, to permit unlimited changes with no fee. This policy applies to all ticket types issued after March 3, 2020 and is valid for domestic and international travel. With these improvements, no U.S. airline gives their customers more flexibility when booking – and changing – their travel plans than United Airlines.
“Change is inevitable these days – but it’s how we respond to it that matters most. When we hear from customers about where we can improve, getting rid of this fee is often the top request,” said Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines, in a video message to customers. “Following previous tough times, airlines made difficult decisions to survive, sometimes at the expense of customer service. United Airlines won’t be following that same playbook as we come out of this crisis. Instead, we’re taking a completely different approach – and looking at new ways to serve our customers better.”
The new change fee policy applies to all standard Economy and Premium cabin tickets for travel within the U.S. 50 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and customers will not be limited in the number of times they adjust their flights.
Additionally, United is giving customers more flexibility to change their flights on the day of their travel so they can head home if a meeting ends earlier or enjoy a few more hours on vacation. With the ability to list for same-day standby for free, customers will now have an option to take a different flight with the same origin and destination airports as their original itinerary if space is available at departure. This enhanced option will be available to all customers for travel within the U.S. and to and from international destinations beginning on January 1, 2021. Customers who want to switch flights will be able to add themselves to the standby list through United’s award-winning mobile app, on or at the airport no later than 30 minutes prior to departure for domestic flights and one hour before departure on international flights.
The carrier is also improving the travel experience for its MileagePlus members including waiving all redeposit fees on award travel for flights changed or cancelled more than 30 days before departure and allowing all MileagePlus Premier members to confirm a different flight on the day of their travel. As a way to thank MileagePlus Premier members for their loyalty, beginning January 1, 2021, all Premier members will be able to confirm a seat for free on a different flight with the same departure and arrival cities as their original ticket. This expanded option will allow MileagePlus Silver members and above to confirm a new seat in the same ticket fare class if space is available. Earlier this year, United announced that it will extend status for MileagePlus Premier and Global Services members through January 2022. United also reduced thresholds for Premier qualification by 50 percent for each status level, to make reaching an even higher status tier easier.

Video Message from Scott Kirby, United's CEO
Is United Going After Southwest?

It’s no secret that one of the biggest advantages Southwest has over other US airlines is that it has no change fees. With international travel almost non-existent at this point due to pandemic travel restrictions, United now finds itself competing with Southwest for domestic travelers. It is only natural to cater to flyers who want to book with peace of mind that they can change their flight (and pay fare difference) or cancel for flight credits for free gravitates towards Southwest, even if they charge higher fares. Of course, Southwest also does not charge checked baggage fees for up to 2 bags.

What This All Means to Travelers

With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we have been adapting to a ‘new normal’: flight loads are uncertain and forecasting models is are useless. With airlines being forced into extending issue change fee waivers on a monthly basis, United pretty much threw in the towel and extended the change fee policy all the way to end of 2020. This gives some travelers peace of mind and they no longer need to check the airline’s ever-changing COVID-19 policies at the end of each month for updates.

Of course, not all changes are positive. As The Points Guy’s Zach Honig noted:

Unfortunately there is one notable downside to United eliminating change fees. Previously, when a change fee applied, customers were entitled to the difference in fare when moving to a lower-cost ticket.
When moving from a $2,000 round-trip business-class flight to a $400 economy ticket, for example, a $200 change fee may have applied, but the customer would have received the $1,600 difference in the form of an Electronic Travel Certificate (ETC). Now, that’s no longer an option — changes are free, but you’ll forfeit the difference if you move to a lower-cost flight.

Will Other Airlines Follow?

Many airlines copy each others’ policies. This is very much true for the “big three” legacy airlines in the US. So expect Delta and American to copy United on this. It is also likely that smaller airlines like Alaska and jetBlue will follow suit, but I would count budget airlines like Spirit and Frontier out.