Corrected: Airlines bring back restrictions for basic-economy tickets

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Airplane airport tarmac runway [Credit: potowizard/Shutterstock.com]
Seven of the 10 primary mainline U.S. airlines are slated to resume some restrictions on basic-economy tickets. Photo Credit: potowizard/Shutterstock.com

This report has been updated and corrected to say that United, American, Delta, Hawaiian and Alaska will resume pre-pandemic prohibitions of itinerary changes for basic economy bookings. Change fees won't be charged.

Seven of the 10 primary U.S. airlines are slated to resume either change fees or prohibitions on basic economy itinerary changes beginning with flights booked April 1, while Delta will resume its basic economy restrictions beginning with flights booked March 31.

Until now, U.S. carriers have suspended change fees and any prohibitions on itinerary changes during the pandemic for all booking classes. In addition, full-service carriers decided during the pandemic to do away with change fees long-term for all itineraries, with some exceptions for itineraries originating abroad.

But barring a late extension of Covid-19 policies, discount carriers Frontier and Spirit will resume charging change fees on most bookings. For Frontier, the fee will be $39 for reservations changed between 59 and seven days before departure. The fee will be $59 for reservations changed within seven days of departure. Changes made 60 or more days out won't be charged.

Spirit typically charged a $90 change fee before the pandemic. 

In addition, JetBlue will implement a $100 change fee on April 1 for most basic economy itineraries and a $200 change for basic economy South American bookings.

At Delta, United, Alaska and Hawaiian, prepandemic policies not allowing for any changes or cancellations of basic economy bookings will resume. American will do the same for itineraries within North America and the Caribbean.

Plans by carriers to re-implement the fees come amid growing bookings. Buoyed by progress on vaccinations in the U.S., tickets issued by U.S. travel agencies last week reached half of the 2019 level for the first time since the pandemic began, according to ARC. 

Still, the reintroduction of change fees and itinerary change prohibitions would come with the pandemic ongoing. According to the CDC, the rolling seven-day average of new cases in the U.S. for the week ending March 19 was 53,000, with an average of 1,025 deaths. Approximately 23% of the U.S. population had received at least one vaccine dose as of March 18, while 12.3% of the population was fully vaccinated.

American, Hawaiian and United have said that they will accommodate changes for customers with Covid-19 or Covid-like symptoms. Other carriers have not responded to an inquiry on that issue.

"The simple answer is: yes, as we have an existing policy that makes exceptions for people with illnesses or health-related issues prior to traveling on American," spokeswoman Andrea Koos said.

Analyst Bob Mann of R.W. Mann & Co. said he thinks carriers will push back their planned policy changes.

"My guess is they are extended, simply because there are still travel and destination reopening concerns," Mann said.

He added that travel is still way down from 2019 levels, evidence that people remain hesitant to book in advance.

"Airlines need advance bookings to generate working capital and reimposing change fees will frustrate advance bookings by those who are on the fence, uncertain about taking the risk," Mann said.

However, Scott Keyes, owner of the bargain-flight-alerting service Scott's Cheap Flights, wrote in a recent blog that he believes the March 31 deadline will stick.

"Airlines have wanted to see new bookings on the rise before clamping down on free changes for basic economy tickets," Keyes wrote. "And thus far, flight searches have increased every single week in 2021, reaching new highs since the pandemic began." 

He advised consumers who are considering booking a bare-bones fare product to do so by March 31 in order to ensure they'll have maximum flexibility.

This report was updated March 25 to add that United will accommodate changes for customers with Covid-19 or Covid-like symptoms.

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