Why won’t airlines follow their own change rules?

by Janice Hough on August 31, 2009

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As many travel articles and posts have noticed, airlines are making an increasingly large part of their revenue from change fees. Which, while sometimes irritating, is certainly their right.

From a travel agent perspective, it’s certainly not our favorite part of the business. It’s hard to tell a client who is frustrated over a fee that first, it’s not our rule, and second, and second, that we have to charge an additional service fee on top of that. (Even in the rare cases, mostly on international tickets, that airlines do pay commission now, they do not pay anything on change fees.)

But what makes me craziest about the change fee rules is this: Airlines don’t always follow them.

Witness two cases this week in point:

The first were two people traveling to Paris about in a little over a week. The wife called and asked what it would take to change her return. The fare rule, which I verified with United, stated a $250 change fee, but that any changes made prior to departure required the fare to be recalculated, so that the travelers would pay the new fare plus the penalty.

In this case, the fare had gone up about $400. There was also the option of waiting until after departure and changing the ticket then just for the flat $250 fee, if the space was still available. I suggested to the clients that they ask at the Red Carpet Club upon departure, as sometimes agents there can make changes once you have checked in for your outbound.

They decided not to pay the higher fare, but the husband, an elite frequent flier member, called to check with United to see how much return space was available, to better judge their chances. The agent on the phone offered to change it for him for simply the fee. Which, of course, he accepted.

In the second instance, a client had a deeply discounted business class ticket on British Airways returning from Barcelona. The fare rules stated that the date could be changed for $400, but not the routing. She was on a European trip and decided to skip the same portion, so we were looking at the best possible prices to get her from Germany, where she was, to Barcelona to catch her return flight.

But at the airport in Munich, she talked to a ticket agent, originally about what would happen if she just didn’t fly the Barcelona to London portion. She explained that she would be staying in Germany and thought – correctly – that it would be cheaper to fly to London.

The agent, however, offered to reroute her entire return, and fly her from Munich via London to Miami, for a total of $900. A significant amount to be sure, but a huge time-saver. While still in the airport, she called me to report this offer and to ask my opinion. I called reservations in the U.S. on the other line. They told me again that such a change was not possible.

So I told her to go back to the counter, and sure enough, they reissued the ticket. When I later called our sales office to ask if there had been some rule change we hadn’t heard about, the supervisor looked at the ticket, laughed and said, “Nope, that’s just the airport, tell her she got lucky.”

I actually would have no problem if airlines announced changes made directly were cheaper. Though, in fact, most airlines charge additional fees for phone changes. (A few airlines, like JetBlue and Virgin America, charge discounted fees for changes on their sites.)

In fact, as most travel agents will attest, mistakes on change fees are a leading cause of airline “debit memos” which are bills sent by airlines to travel agents for doing something they don’t like, or for undercollecting penalties. And in these cases, had we waived the new fare for the United ticket, or allowed a routing change for the British Airways ticket, we would have been socked with heavy penalties.

In both cases here, the clients ended up ahead. But it meant extra time for both our agency and the airlines involved. Not only do these kind of incidents make travelers less likely to trust travel agents, but also they contribute to a culture where travelers end up calling repeatedly until they get tired of asking, or get the answer they want.

And airlines wonder why travelers don’t trust them.

(Photo: afagan/Flickr Creative Commons)

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  • Frank

    Witness two cases this week in point:

    The first were two people traveling to Paris about in a little over a week. The wife called and asked what it would take to change her return. The fare rule, which I verified with United, stated a $250 change fee, but that any changes made prior to departure required the fare to be recalculated, so that the travelers would pay the new fare plus the penalty.
    They decided not to pay the higher fare, but the husband, an elite frequent flier member, called to check with United to see how much return space was available, to better judge their chances. The agent on the phone offered to change it for him for simply the fee. Which, of course, he accepted.
    =====================================================

    You THINK his ELITE STATUS had anything to do with it????

    And, it should.

    Bother way, HOW MUCH is your “service fee”?

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  • http://leftcoastsportsbabe.com Janice Hough

    No question that Elite status helped, but the airline saw the record and knew he was Elite when I called the help desk. Still wouldn’t let me do it. (And usually, only $40.)

  • Barry

    I have to agree with the writer, travel agents serve a dual role, agent for the consumber and agent for the airlines. Since travel agents are governed by the airline rules, the airline should abide by there own written rules each and every time, however that is seldum done, why? Because few of the airline own personal understand there rules. It is easier for personal to avoid the rule rather then understand the rule and make the proper change and collect the fee.

    The agent however is stuck between a rock and a hard place. The consumer wants the least expensive way to make the change, the agent does want to accomplish this for there clients, however the airline penaltizes them if they make a simple mistake on the change whereas they do nothing to there own staff.

    Every ticket should have the same rules applied no matter what or who they are.

  • c. november

    What you are not taking into account is that airline agents work for the airline, and thus may be pondering different issues when waiving rules. For example, if a change will move a passenger from a badly overbooked flight into a half-full flight, waiving a fee or fare diff is worth it.

    Sometimes, also, airport agents are just too lazy to consider all the different rules, and, you see, they’re not getting a debit memo for being lazy.

    Nonetheless, and by my experience, the reason passengers are turning to the airlines for reissues is because most travel agents nowadays don’t know how to reissue a ticket, and they are too lazy or scared to do it.

  • http://www.att.net vacationagent

    Airport agents have significant authority to make changes for passengers who are standing in front of them. If I have attempted without success to get an airline to waive a rule or fee for me, I always advise my clent to try to finesse it at the airport but to be prepared to pay. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

    As for airline agents not getting debit memos, Some airline agents get “error” memos when they waive fees, etc.

  • John.M

    “Nonetheless, and by my experience, the reason passengers are turning to the airlines for reissues is because most travel agents nowadays don’t know how to reissue a ticket, and they are too lazy or scared to do it.”

    I find this really hard to believe since most travel agents I know, not only know how to do ticket exchanges but do lots of them. As for being scared to do them, I can understand that given that the airlines debit them for anything and everything, even things that are permitted by the airlines own rules. Travel agents have to go back, research what happened, document it and then submit the evidence back to the airline and hope, and yes, it’s hope, that the airline will honor their own rules.

    I know the agent in our travel department has been fighting a debit memo from an airline here for the last several months. The debit is, as I understand it, for taking a discount on a fare that the airline priced based on our corporate contract. The airline admits that the contract is valid and would apply but it seems that the airline’s accounting system cut off the last digit of some code that is required for the discount and thus it is our agent’s fault.

    I’ve worked with a lot of agents over the years and I’ve never known any that I would accuse of being lazy. Now I can’t say that about some of the airline employees I’ve dealt with in the last couple of years.

  • nadabrainiac

    Damned if they do, damned if they don’t. The airline gets criticized for imposing fees, then the airline gets criticized if an employee exercises some latitude as a courtesy to a customer. For whatever reason; color, cleavage, mood or manner, different people get different treatment and breaks. Rules are good guidelines, but we all get and give special treatment to others. If that’s an uncomfortable reality, be sure to argue with the next policeman that offers to let you off with a warning. Demand your citation!

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