Yesterday United Airlines delighted the flying public by announcing that it would eliminate change fees and standby fees on domestic flights. Airline change fees have historically been a major point of frustration among travelers, so this was incredible news. In particular, it’s amazing to see United leading here, rather than Delta.
While this announcement is great, in this post I wanted to focus on the aspect of this that’s leaving me scratching my head.
This change is permanent and forever?!
We see airlines announce major changes all the time, both positive and negative (though usually there are more negative announcements than positive ones). However, rarely do airlines ever announce a change explicitly as being “permanent” and “forever.”
But that’s something that United emphasized the heck out of with yesterday’s announcement. The press release stated that these changes were permanent, while in a video message from United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, he said that these changes were “forever.”
And that matches United’s messaging otherwise, including on social media, where the company is repeatedly mentioning that this change is forever. That’s right, F-o-r-e-v-e-r.
This is just so unusual for the airline industry. Even for policies that are intended to apply long-term, airlines almost never suggest something will be “forever.” Rather changes are permanent until the airline changes its mind, and then the changes aren’t permanent anymore.
Is the other shoe about to drop?
Several readers have said “uh oh, is there a negative announcement coming soon, because this seems too good to be true?”
I don’t think there’s a negative announcement coming soon. Right now airlines are in a dire situation, and consumers are in control. There’s no room for negative changes to be made.
In fairness, being skeptical here is logical, given the precedent. In the past positive changes at United have typically been followed pretty quickly by negative changes as well.
What’s United’s play here?
This is a great change, but I still can’t fully wrap my head around United’s marketing of this. Let me say that surely United Airlines doesn’t actually think this change is “forever,” in the sense that it will never change. Nothing in the airline industry has ever been forever. Nothing. Nada. Never.
Based on that, I have a few thoughts:
- The industry has at least a few tough years ahead, so the priority right now is scoring short term brownie points that reassure customers, and the airline can deal with the “forever” thing in the future. United Airlines might as well beat American and Delta to the punch here with this inevitable change.
- This question is for lawyers, because I don’t know the answer — could United at some point in the future be held liable if the company decides to bring back change fees in spite of promising it won’t happen? I don’t think so as long as they don’t retroactively change the terms you agree to when buying a ticket, but I’m also not sure.
- I think the most likely theory is that long-term this could simply be part of an overhauling of United’s fare structure. Basic Economy tickets aren’t permanently getting free changes, so I suspect we could eventually see the price differential between Basic Economy and regular economy increase.
I think that last point is the most likely explanation. For now United Airlines needs to offer flexibility due to all the uncertainty. And in the future if the industry fully recovers, United can simply increase the fare difference between Basic Economy and regular economy, marketing the latter as a product that comes with free changes.
Heck, in the future we could see United introduce several tiers of Basic Economy tickets, with “regular” economy tickets being closer to what refundable tickets were in the past. The point is, United could easily technically stay true to its promise by simply rebranding existing products, if it comes to that point.
United Airlines deserves credit for becoming the first US legacy airline to eliminate change fees on domestic tickets, which is a phenomenal development.
United insists that this change is “forever,” which isn’t typically how we see anything in the airline industry marketed. That’s very unusual, and one can’t help but wonder what United’s long-term plan is, once things recover.
If the airline did technically want to stay true to its promise, it could just expand Basic Economy fares and increase the fare difference between that and regular economy, I suppose.
What’s your take on United’s promise of forever?