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Airlines relax rules on nonrefundable tickets

Sunday, October 12, 2003

By James Gilden, Los Angeles Times

In an effort to win back travelers who have switched to low-fare carriers, the "big six" airlines recently rolled back their restrictions on nonrefundable tickets. They're allowing passengers to reschedule and use those tickets up to a year later.

Before the change, customers with nonrefundable tickets who canceled a flight had to reschedule before their scheduled departure, a burden for someone whose plans changed because of illness or accident.

The result of the tough-love approach? "All it really did is tick people off," says Terry Trippler, an airline expert with CheapSeats.-com.

American Airlines was the first to change, and soon after its Aug. 19 announcement, Continental, Delta, Northwest and United followed suit. US Airways changed its policy Sept. 13.

But what was intended to ease one burden for travelers has added to the confusion around ever-changing rules.

American's change is typical. Passengers who have nonrefundable tickets that allow changes (these tickets often use such phrases as "fee on change") have a full year from the date the ticket was issued to reschedule the flight without losing the value of that ticket, if they cancel before their scheduled departure.

Here's how that translates into English for those not versed in airline lingo: Say you bought a ticket Sept. 30 for a 6 p.m. flight on Oct. 15. Total cost is $250. Your plans change. To retain the value of your ticket, you must call American before 6 p.m. on Oct. 15 and cancel your reservation. If you don't, you lose the value of the ticket.

You then have one year after you purchased your ticket to reschedule and begin a new flight. Change fees of up to $100 for domestic ($200 for international) flights apply. If the fare has increased, you'll pay the difference.

Continuing with our hypothetical ticket, let's say you reschedule the flight for May 2004, but the best fare you can find is $350. That leaves you owing $100 for the higher fare plus the $100 change fee. Suddenly your $250 ticket is worth $50.

Confused? Join the crowd. As is often the case with air travel, the devil is in the details. For example, the new rule applies only to nonrefundable tickets on which changes are allowed. That excludes many -- though not all -- deeply discounted tickets purchased on the Internet. (Many Web sites have a "fare rules" link that allows you to check whether changes are allowed.)

To add to the confusion: United applies the new rule only to domestic flights, not international ones. Furthermore, some airlines start the year from the date you purchased the ticket; others start from the date of departure. (Read on for details.)

Although the change is consumer-friendly, participating airlines still have a long way to go compared with the low-fare airlines. Perhaps not surprisingly, passengers continue to switch to the low-fare competition.

Southwest, for instance, has the least restrictive cancellation policy, which is also the easiest to understand: You bought it; it's yours. No phone call requiring cancellation, no change fees. Simply apply it to another flight within a year of purchase.

Southwest carried 6.5 million domestic passengers in May, more than any other airline; it was the first time a low-fare airline achieved such a distinction. A year earlier, Southwest ranked third behind Delta and American, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"I really do believe the 'big six' have waited too long," says Trippler, who also acknowledges that those carriers won't be going away, just changing. "It's too little too late to stop the movement to the low-fare airlines."

America West, Trippler says, is an example of an airline that has successfully made the transition to a low-fare carrier. He credits its success partly to its return to its roots as a low-fare carrier.

"I thought they were nuts," he says of the airline's decision to make the transition. "But I've never been so happy to be wrong in my life."

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