No-change-fee policies may only be the beginning of more customer-friendly airline updates

a large air plane on a runway at an airport

© Provided by The Points Guy

MSN has partnered with The Points Guy for our coverage of credit card products. MSN and The Points Guy may receive a commission from card issuers.

icon: Airlines Week banner for the 2020 TPG Awards

© The Points Guy
Airlines Week banner for the 2020 TPG Awards

2020 didn’t turn out how anyone planned. And that’s especially true for folks in the airline industry. 

With the pandemic raging on, airlines have slashed flights, cut capacity, furloughed employees, retired fleets and made many additional cost-cutting moves.

But amid all the negative news, airlines have delighted customers and surprised industry observers with some positive policy adjustments.

In honor of airline week for the TPG Awards, let’s take a look at some of the flyer-friendly updates airlines made in 2020 — and explore some other positive changes that might be coming in 2021 and beyond.

Sign up for TPG’s free new biweekly Aviation newsletter for more airline-specific news!

In This Post

No-change-fee policies

United shocked the industry in August when it became the first legacy carrier to announce that it would permanently drop many change fees. These pesky $200 (or more) ancillary charges have long been a significant revenue driver for airlines. But with the pandemic causing so much future uncertainty, United clearly felt that the time was right to drop these fees.

Within three short days, much of the industry matched United’s move — Alaska, American, Delta and Hawaiian all announced similar no-change-fee policies. Of course, the U.S. airline industry is highly competitive, so when one airline makes a dramatic policy shift, the others usually follow.

That leaves JetBlue as the only major, non ultra-low-cost carrier to still have change fees. Of course, Southwest has never charged these fees.

Related: How airline no-change-fee policies stack up against Southwest

Expanded change-fee waivers

Though nearly every U.S. airline now has a no-change-fee policy, the details vary widely based on the carrier. For instance, United won’t give you a future travel credit if you decide to switch to a cheaper flight. American and Delta will.

a large passenger jet sitting on top of a tarmac at an airport: United became the first of the Big 3 to eliminate change fees (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

© The Points Guy
United became the first of the Big 3 to eliminate change fees (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Additionally, American and United will waive change fees for flights to select Caribbean destinations. Delta won’t.

Although these new policies are great news for travelers, there’s still some room for improvement.

For one, it’d be great to see airlines waive change fees to all destinations, including on long-haul international flights.

Likewise, the award ticket cancellation policies still vary by airline. The clear leader is American, as the carrier just announced that, as of Nov. 11, it will charge no redeposit fees for canceled awards — up until departure of the flight. This applies to all types of award tickets, including discounted Web Specials.

Delta, meanwhile, has removed the $150 award redeposit and reissue fee for only domestic awards, but that policy excludes basic economy redemptions. United won’t charge redeposit fees for any travel canceled more than 30 days before departure, but last-minute cancellations are still subject to fees.

As the pandemic continues to rage on, expanding the change-fee waivers to include international destinations and award redeposits would be a great way to bolster confidence in booking future travel.

Video: United Returns To JFK Airport (CBS New York)

United Returns To JFK Airport



More targeted, limited-time promotions

Over the past seven months, U.S. airlines have needed to incentivize people to take to the skies.

One of the best ways to do that is with limited-time promotions. Among others, American has offered a rebate on redemptions, and United has expanded its targeted Mile Play promotion.

Every customer is going to have a unique return-to-travel journey. Some have already taken to the skies again, while others may be ready to fly again tomorrow. Still more travelers might wait for a vaccine. As such, expect to see many more targeted promotions, aimed to get a certain subset of people back in the air.

Reduced checked bag fees

In addition to change fees, the other most-hated airline surcharge is likely that for checked bags.

Airlines made nearly $6 billion on these fees in 2019 (per Bureau of Transporation Statistics data), so they’re likely not going away anytime soon. But if one carrier wanted to match Southwest and offer two free checked bags, the press would likely be all over it. Plus, it’s possible that travelers would shift their business to airlines offering free bags.

While it remains to be seen if a legacy carrier will ultimately waive checked bag fees, you can easily get free bags by carrying a cobranded airline credit card — or leveraging card perks like the Amex annual airline fee credit.

Related: How to avoid checked baggage fees on major domestic airlines

Relaxed basic economy restrictions

One of the major trends in the airline industry over the past few years has been the proliferation of basic economy fares. Designed to match with ultra-low-cost carriers and better segment the market, these fares stripped out many of the typical inclusions in an airline ticket — seat assignments, carry-on bags, elite benefits and more.

Since Oct. 1, basic economy flyers on AA can now purchase upgrades, priority boarding, extra-legroom seats and same-day confirmed flight changes. Additionally, elite members are now eligible for upgrades, free coach seats and same-day changes when purchasing the cheapest fares.

In the hypercompetitive aviation industry, when one carrier makes a move, the others follow in lockstep. It’s only a matter of time before Delta and United match — or outdo — AA’s basic economy updates.

Related: Comparing basic economy across airlines

More status match opportunities

Before the pandemic, many were on the elite-status “hamster wheel,” myself included.

But as the industry recovers, some flyers will want to “cheat” on their preferred carrier and try a competitor. That’s exactly why we’ll likely see many more status matches and challenges in the coming months.

In October, Delta offered temporary Diamond Medallion status to top-tier elite members on other airlines. This way, these lucrative customers get a taste of the “good life” when flying Delta, in the hopes that they’ll change allegiances in the future.

Related: Airline elite status match and challenge options for 2020

Elimination of expiration policies

Of the major U.S. airlines, American, Frontier, Hawaiian and Spirit all have frequent flyer points that expire after a certain period of time.

a plane sitting on top of a runway: Spirit just announced a new loyalty program that still has a strict expiration policy (Photo courtesy of Spirit)

© The Points Guy
Spirit just announced a new loyalty program that still has a strict expiration policy (Photo courtesy of Spirit)

If there’s one thing that we’ve learned from the pandemic, travelers value flexibility.

That’s exactly what members get with Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and United, all of which have loyalty currencies that never expire — regardless of how long your accounts lay dormant.

There have been improvements along these lines in 2020, however:

Though announcements like these along with limited-time extensions are good in the short-run, it’d be great if the aforementioned carriers permanently waived points expiration.

Bottom line

No-change-fee policies are just the tip of the iceberg for other possible changes coming to the airline industry.

With the pandemic upending conventional industry norms, we may see carriers reduce or remove checked bag fees, continue relaxing basic economy restrictions, add more paths to elite status and more.

Only time will tell what comes to fruition, but one thing’s for sure — airlines are going to need to do all that they can to convince the general population to take to the skies once again.

Featured photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy

SPONSORED: With states reopening, enjoying a meal from a restaurant no longer just means curbside pickup.

And when you do spend on dining, you should use a credit card that will maximize your rewards and potentially even score special discounts. Thanks to temporary card bonuses and changes due to coronavirus, you may even be able to score a meal at your favorite restaurant for free. 

These are the best credit cards for dining out, taking out, and ordering in to maximize every meal purchase.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Continue Reading