Why Are Airline Change Fees So High?

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Air travelers wait in line at the Delta Airlines ticket counter behind an instructional sign.

Something in the airline biz just doesn't add up. As one discerning flyer noticed, there's a big gap between the fee a passenger is charged when he or she changes a flight and the amount airlines hand out in compensation when they change flights on you — and the difference costs you.

Offending Party: Delta Air Lines

What's at Stake: $75

The Complaint: Bob Paterno recently bought a ticket aboard Delta for his nephew, who was returning to school after a break. College students being what they are — with half-functioning brains addled by years of sleep deprivation and excessive Doritos consumption — the nephew got his return date wrong. Paterno informed the airline and was told he'd have to cough up a $150 change fee for a new ticket.

Paying a change fee always rankles, but what made Paterno especially angry was that he had flown Delta a few months earlier and his flight had been delayed 24 hours because of mechanical troubles. Guess how much the airline offered him in compensation? If you said $150, you'd be wrong by double.

Paterno was given just $75 — which raises the question, Why are customers forced to pay one amount (in cash) when they inconvenience an airline but are given a smaller amount (in vouchers, no less) when the airline inconveniences them? It seems patently unfair.

The Outcome: Paterno wrote to Delta, asking the airline to refund him $75 — the difference between the change fee for his nephew's ticket and Paterno's compensation for being delayed — simply on principle. Delta, however, remained as inflexible as a chicken breast in an in-flight meal.

A customer-service representative e-mailed Paterno to deny his request, writing, in part, "In order to be fair to all our customers, it is important to adhere to the terms of the ticket each passenger has purchased. In this case, a fee applies even if the decision to cancel or change planned travel is due to an illness or other circumstance that was unknown at the time the ticket was purchased."

Not to nitpick, but if the airlines really wanted to be fair, they'd make customers pay change fees equal to what they would receive for being inconvenienced themselves. It's not like your doctor charges you double the cost of an examination if you fail to show up for your appointment.

The Avenger took up the case with Delta and got a terse response that read, "The amount of compensation for passengers that Delta has inconvenienced varies and is determined on a case-by-case basis." The airline spokesperson declined to give the range of compensation passengers are offered.

It's the same story at other major airlines. American, for example, also charges a $150 change fee but offers no compensation for passengers inconvenienced by the airline. American will, however, refund the ticket.

The U.S. government has set some guidelines for compensating airline passengers, though the regulations apply only to those flyers who are involuntarily bumped when a plane is overbooked. (The practice of overselling flights, by the way, is perfectly legal.) The Fed's rules are complicated, but in a nutshell, domestic passengers who are bumped and are put on another flight that arrives one to two hours after the original arrival time are entitled to be paid the cost of the one-way fare. Passengers who are bumped and are caused to arrive more than two hours late are entitled to double the cost of the one-way fare.

Again, these regulations apply only to passengers who are involuntarily bumped because of oversold flights. In other cases, such as mechanical difficulties, passenger compensation is at the airline's discretion. "I find it odd that in today's technology-based economy, that the airlines still contend that they need to impose change-of-flight fees on any customer," says Brandon Macsata, executive director of the Association for Airline Passenger Rights. "And certainly charging $100 or more, as most airlines do, is absolutely ridiculous."

Agreed. In fact, your only real respite as a passenger is to fly Southwest. They don't charge change fees.