United Airlines

An empty United Airlines counter at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago in June 2020.

In direct conflict with national health experts, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has declared air travel safe during the ongoing pandemic.

In statements made last Friday, the governor said he was trying to ease people’s fears about flying, which have dealt a crushing blow to Florida’s tourism-based economy. The number of people flying into the state from March-June fell by nearly two-thirds compared to the same time period last year.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that air travel does increase a person’s risk of getting COVID-19 because of time in security lines and airport terminals. Since March, many studies have concluded that flying itself is a relatively low-risk activity, as long as stringent safety measures such as spacing and masking are followed while on the plane. Many airlines are not keeping middle seats empty, however.

Meanwhile, United Airlines is doing its part to try and lure people back to flying by announcing its elimination of the dreaded $200 change fee for travel within the United States.

“When we hear from customers about where we can improve, getting rid of fees is often the top request,” United CEO Scott Kirby said in a video posted Sunday.

United’s move put pressure on American Airlines and Delta Air Lines to permanently drop their change fees, also $200 for domestic travel. The two air carriers have also announced they are waiving those fees. Southwest Airlines does not charge change fees, a policy its CEO says has helped it gain more business.

United also said that it will extend a broad waiver of change fees – including for international travel – through Dec. 31. Customers who pay the lowest fares, called “basic economy,” can also change tickets free because of the extended waiver announced Sunday.

And starting in January, United will allow customers to fly standby for free on other flights the same day as their booked flight.

Consumer groups have long complained about the array of fees that airlines impose for things that were once part of the fare. Change fees draw particular scorn because, critics say, they far exceed airlines’ costs of changing or canceling tickets with a few keystrokes.

Fees on checked bags and ticket changes gained widespread use during an industry downturn in 2008. Since then, airlines have added fees on seats with more legroom, priority boarding and other amenities.

They contributed to a highly profitable run that lasted for a decade, broken only by the pandemic. Now airlines are slashing flights and shrinking workforces to cope with the travel slump.

The United CEO acknowledged that airlines facing tough times have often “made difficult decisions to survive, sometimes at the expense of customer service.” Kirby said United is looking to serve customers better this time.

The four largest U.S. airlines lost a combined $10 billion from April through June. United has since warned 36,000 employees that they could be furloughed in October. It received $5 billion in taxpayer money to keep workers on the payroll through September.

United has scooped up nearly $6.5 billion in change fees since 2010. Last year, it took in $625 million, third behind Delta and American, according to Transportation Department figures.

In Washington, D.C., several lawmakers have launched periodic campaigns to outlaw change fees. In 2018, the Senate approved a bill to prohibit “unreasonable” fees for changing or canceling tickets, but the measure was scuttled in negotiations with the House.

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