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United, Delta, American Say They Are Dropping Change Fees For Domestic Flights

Updated at 5:15 p.m. ET

As airlines try to coax back customers wary of flying during the COVID-19 pandemic, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines are bowing to consumer demand and getting rid of many change fees.

United announced the change on Sunday, and Delta and American followed suit on Monday afternoon.

"It's no secret that the coronavirus pandemic has had a historic economic impact on airlines," United CEO Scott Kirby said in a video statement. "When we hear from customers about where we can improve, getting rid of this fee is often the top request."

Previously, United's standard domestic change fee was $200, according to the carrier. Delta charged the same amount for changes within the 50 United States, Canada, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. American's typical feefor a domestic flight change, before the day of travel, was also $200.

United said Sunday that it was "permanently getting rid of change fees on all standard Economy and Premium cabin tickets for travel within the U.S."

Delta's change applies to tickets within the domestic U.S., Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands. It does not include Basic Economy tickets, the airline's lower-cost fares.

American said that"change fees for all domestic and short-haul international flying on Premium Cabin fares and most Main Cabin fares will be eliminated."

As of Jan. 1, United will allow customers to fly same-day standby for free – a service that used to cost $75 for people who didn't have status in its rewards program. American is launching a similar policy, starting Oct. 1.

The changes come as airlines are struggling with far lower demand than usual. Delta said that last quarter, the number of passengers on its planes was down 93% compared with the period a year ago.

United said last month that the previous quarter was the worst in its 94-year history. It lost at least $1.6 billion and burned cash at an average of $40 million a day. American's net losses last quarter were $2.1 billion.

These three airlines and other carriers have been offering increased flexibility as the coronavirus pandemic leads customers to rejigger their travel plans.

After United announced the change to its policy, industry experts noted that it placed pressure on other major airlines to match the changes.

"American and Delta don't have much of a choice," Henry Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research Group told The Points Guy before the announcements from those two airlines. "Southwest and United have boxed them in a corner. If they don't match, they risk losing customers to Southwest and United. If they do match, it's a zero-sum game."

Southwest does not charge change fees, a policy that has long been popular with its flyers.

This type of fee brings in huge amounts of money for many airlines. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics last year, United collected more than $625 million, Delta more than $830 million, and American $818 million in fees for changes and cancellations. In 2019, U.S. airlines took in more than $2.8 billion in these fees.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.