For Immediate Release - December 20, 2013

State Office of Consumer Affairs: Airline Change and Cancellation Fee Policies Pricey and Confusing

Survey of Major Airlines Finds Policies for Refundable and Non-Refundable Fares Difficult to Navigate

BOSTON – As the busy holiday travel season draws near, the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation (OCABR) today announced the findings of its airline disclosure survey, which looks at flight change and cancellation policies and their associated fees.

The survey, conducted during the week of November 18, 2013, compared the change and cancellation policies of six major airlines. Researchers looked at airline policies for information about change and cancellation fees, flight rebooking and flight time windows, and payment options for refunded fares. Policies for both refundable and non-refundable tickets were examined.

“Consumers really have their work cut out for them when trying to find out an airline’s cancellation policy for their tickets, but it is time well spent,” said Undersecretary of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation Barbara Anthony. “Consumers spend top dollar for air travel, particularly during the holiday season. We hope that airline carriers will consider our results and start to make it easier for consumers to readily gather and understand this information through clear and conspicuous disclosure.”

OCABR staff examined round-trip tickets for flights leaving Boston Logan and New York’s LaGuardia Airport on December 18 and returning on December 28.  The survey included information from American Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Virgin America, Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines, and United Airlines. Researchers looked at each airline's “Contract of Carriage,” which dictates rules and restrictions for tickets, as well as specific restrictions placed on each individual itinerary, such as restrictions on time and destination changes.

All of the airlines surveyed had confusing change and cancellation policies. Staff had to make calls to each airline’s customer service department after being unable to find the relevant information online. Notably, two airlines, American and United, had their policies formatted in a manner that made these already difficult to understand policies even more difficult to read.  Specifically, these policies were displayed in all capital letters with little or no punctuation delineating clear clauses, sentences, lists or sections. OCABR staff had to re-format and arrange the text to gain a basic understanding of these policies.

Five of the airlines offered rebooking and flight windows each for one year from the date of the original ticket’s purchase, meaning that should a consumer have to cancel and rebook she would have one year from the original date of purchase to book the ticket and to fly.  But Spirit Airlines gives consumers a 60 day window from the date of cancellation within which to rebook or lose the entire value of the ticket. 

The Office of Consumer Affairs is also aware that at least one international carrier, Aer Lingus, has a very limited window within which to rebook, and it is not disclosed prior to booking.  Rebooking windows become very important, especially in cases where an unexpected illness or unplanned surgery may interfere with travel plans.  Consumers should not assume that all carriers will accommodate or make exceptions for unplanned medical emergencies; they will not. 

Consumers may also have to pay more to rebook a flight, if they even can. Change and cancellation fees on non-refundable tickets ranged from $75 to $200, depending on the original price of the ticket, the travel destination, when the change or cancellation is made, and whether it is made online or at the airport. Spirit Airlines and Virgin America each give the consumer 24 hours after booking within which to change or cancel their tickets without any extra fees. 

Five of the airlines charge consumers a fee once per call or online transaction to change the ticket, regardless of how many details of the ticket are changed. For example, if a consumer needs to change the departure times for each leg of the ticket, he can call and change it over the phone and will be charged the change fee only once for that call. Should he call again, he would be charged a second fee. Southwest Airlines is the only airline surveyed that does not charge a change or cancellation fee on non-refundable tickets. 

Below are the change and cancellation fees and the rebooking windows for the specific non-refundable tickets surveyed:

Fees and Restrictions on Non-Refundable Tickets

Airline

Change or Cancellation Fee

Change Fee Frequency

Rebooking Window

American Airlines

$200 change fee for this flight (between $75 and $200 depending on destination)

Once per call

1 year from initial booking

JetBlue


- $75 for changes or cancellations made 60 days or more prior to departure;

- Changes or cancellations made within 60 days of departure require a fee of:
- $75 for fares under $100
- $100 for fares $100 to $149
- $150 for fares $150 and over

Once per call

1 year from initial booking

Southwest Airlines

No fee

No fee

1 year from initial booking

Spirit Airlines

- $115 (online)

- $125 (on phone or at airport)

Some bookings are eligible for free cancellation for 24 hours after initial purchase.

Once per call

60 days

United Airlines

$200 change fee;
but there is no fee if the ticket is changed within 24 hours of booking

Once per call

1 year from initial booking

Virgin America

Changes or cancellations require a fee of $100; but there is no fee if the ticket is changed or cancelled within 24 hours of booking

Once per call

1 year from initial booking

NOTE: The purchaser is also responsible for any applicable fare difference in addition to any change fee.

To view the full survey, click here.

For each of the airlines surveyed, consumers could avoid change and cancellation fees by purchasing a refundable ticket. Refundable tickets often allow the consumer to receive a refund in the original form of payment, as opposed to flight value that can only be used with the same airline. Spirit Airlines is the only airline surveyed not to offer a refundable fare.

United Airlines offers two types of refundable tickets: “flexible” and “unrestricted”.  The “flexible” ticket includes a $200 change fee if the change is to a restricted destination, as defined in the fare rules of each individual ticket. The “unrestricted” ticket does not impose a restriction on destination changes.

Round-trip non-refundable ticket prices ranged from $256.78 to $747.80, while round-trip refundable ticket prices ranged from $751.80 to $1859.80.  Though refundable tickets offer certain benefits, the cost of a refundable ticket is markedly higher than the price of a non-refundable ticket plus the change or cancellation fee.

The Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation recommends that consumers take the following into consideration before booking a flight:

  • Keep the price difference in mind when choosing between a refundable or non-refundable ticket. Only choose the refundable ticket if you know you may need the cash value.
  • Make sure to check flight rebooking windows. Before buying your ticket, double-check the window of time within which you have to rebook your flight in case you do have to change or cancel your ticket. Don’t get caught off guard by waiting too long.
  • Read the fine print carefully. Particularly if you know that a situation may occur in which you have to make a change or cancel your airline ticket, make sure to consult the airline’s policy.  If you have questions or concerns about the details of the transaction, do not hesitate to call the airline directly.
  • Look into travel insurance. Many airlines offer the option to buy third-party travel insurance in case of illness or other extenuating circumstance. Travel insurance can also be bought directly from an insurer or through a consumer’s credit card. While these policies may be confusing as well, they can offer additional protection in case a cancellation is made in extenuating circumstances not covered by the airline’s policy. Be careful, however, because some travel insurers will not cover illness if the condition existed before booking.

Consumers who have complaints or comments about airline service can contact the United States Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division through its online air travel complaint form or by calling (202) 366-2220.  Consumers can also contact the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation by calling (617) 973-8787 or toll-free in Massachusetts at (888) 283-3757.

The Patrick Administration’s Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation is committed to protecting consumers through consumer advocacy and education, and also works to ensure that the businesses its agencies regulate treat all Massachusetts consumers fairly. Visit the Office’s website at www.mass.gov/consumer. Follow the Office at its blog, on Facebook and on Twitter, @Mass_Consumer

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