Wide variations in weather waiver policies affecting passengers

The Mid-Atlantic US coast is suffering some of the worst snow in years today.  The airline industry is experiencing the most cancelations on a single day in over 8 years – over 4,000 flights canceled today according to USA Today, and that doesn’t even include Southwest’s schedule.  Needless to say that tens of thousands of customers are affected and the airlines are all responding to the storm.  Of note, however, is that each airline is responding somewhat differently.  Sure, they’ve all put out a press release essentially stating that customers can make changes “for free” to affected itineraries.  But just how free are those changes?

It turns out that for most carriers the “free changes” are anything but.  Getting a seat could cost hundreds of dollars and the airlines aren’t particularly cooperative or sympathetic in many cases.  Even when the changes are truly free there are limits and caveats the customers face.  Just how different are the policies?  Here’s a quick summary.

At the most liberal end of the spectrum is New York City-based jetBlue.  The carrier has implemented a no fee, no fare difference policy for affected customers.  The main caveat is that all travel must be rebooked prior to the original scheduled departure time.  But other than that the policy is quite friendly.  Customers can book until until February 28 to reschedule their trips.  Not too shabby.

American Airlines is up at the same level as jetBlue though they are somewhat more restrictive in rescheduling of the travel.  AA is not charging any change fees or fare differences for changes so long as the rescheduled travel occurs by February 14.

Delta has matched AA’s policy.  No change fees and no fare differences assuming the origin/destination are the same and travel is completed by February 14th.

Closely following these three in customer-friendly policy is United Airlines.  United is permitting a waiver of change fees across the board and also of fare differences for travel rescheduled within 48 hours of the originally scheduled flight.  For travel pushed farther than that any fare differences are borne by the customers.  So a cheap advance-purchase ticket that is rebooked for a week from now may incur a significant charge to make the change as the cheaper fare buckets are unlikely to be available.

Three other major carriers – Continental, US Airways and Southwest – have implemented a no change fee policy (Southwest never charges one anyways).  In each case, however, the airline is requiring that the same class of service be available for rebooking without charge.  Lacking that availability customers must either pay the fare difference – potentially hundreds of dollars per ticket – or fly standby and hope to grab a seat.  Neither is particularly appealing.  The details of the policies for those carriers are spelled out here: Continental, US Airways, Southwest.

Are such variations in policies enough to drive your booking tendencies?  And are they fair?  After all, it isn’t the customer’s fault that mother nature decided to assault the mid-Atlantic this week, right?

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.