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The News Said Two Airlines Just Scrapped Change and Cancel Fees—but the Truth Is Messier

Something notable is happening at American airports. Something that only happens once in a blue moon.

Airlines are changing their positions on fees.

In recent days, two major U.S. airlines announced the same move. Airlines swear they don’t collude, but once again two carriers came up with the same headline-grabbing policy change simultaneously. Except this time, instead of doing something annoying like hiking baggage fees, the companies announced something travelers will actually love.

The airlines in question are Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines, two no-frills carriers that, up to now, have been infamous for their many fees.

In a press release trumpeting the price reform measures, Frontier all but admitted that its prices have not been transparent previously. 

“Today marks the beginning of a new era for Frontier—one with transparency in our prices, no change fees and the lowest total price,” declared Barry Biffle, Frontier’s CEO.

The airline is doing that by creating three new ticket classes—Economy Bundle, Premium Bundle, and Business Bundle—to go along with Basic fares. Now, instead of charging customers à la carte fees for changes or cancellation on most tickets, Frontier will simply grant the right to cancel or change a flight without charge as long as you purchase tickets in one of the airline’s three more expensive categories.

Changing and canceling won’t be free with a Basic ticket, the airline’s cheapest fare.

Thus, some cancellation and change fees will be eliminated at Frontier. Contrary to a lot of misleading headlines (even the Associated Press got it wrong in a widely disseminated headline), Frontier has not cut out these fees entirely.

Customers who buy the cheapest Frontier airfare, Basic, which appears first in many search results, will still be forced to pay $49 to $99 to change a flight 59 days or fewer before departure, while the fee for canceling a Basic flight will still be $99.

The right to choose a seat without charge will also be granted to every Frontier ticket class except Basic, where (optional) seat selection will continue to require a fee.

The new Economy Bundle, which automatically comes with a carry-on bag allowance and seat assignment, will cost at least $30 more than the Basic fare. So Frontier customers will still be paying for seat assignments and carry-on bags—it’s just that the cost of those will be folded into the ticket price for Economy Bundle and higher classes, rather than extracted from customers bit by bit.

Spirit Airlines overhauled its own fee system for changes and cancellations on the exact same day. What a coincidence!

Now Spirit passengers can change flights up to an hour before the departure time for free.

Previously, Spirit charged $90 to cancel a reservation online and up to $119 to cancel over the phone or at the airport. Those fees were not being enforced following the Covid-19 pandemic, but the rules remained on the books. 

Also part of the policy change: Customers who cancel a Spirit flight will receive an in-house credit for the full value of the reservation. We’d much rather have the charge fully refunded, but the airline won’t do that unless you bought your ticket less than 24 hours ago and the flight is at least a week in the future. At least Spirit will let you keep the full value of your ticket for future use, without deducting fees.

None of the Big Three carriers (American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines) currently charges change fees on full-fare tickets, but they also aren’t proclaiming that in suspiciously timed media announcements. 

Don’t assume any of the airlines have made this change out of the goodness of their hearts. Those are still the size of those little bags of pretzels, and about as twisted.

Here’s why: The Biden White House is cracking down on how airlines disclose the true costs of flying. One of the new rules announced on April 24 requires “airlines and ticket agents to tell consumers upfront what fees they charge for checked bags, a carry-on bag, for changing a reservation, or cancelling a reservation.” (Read Frommer’s full reaction to the April 24 rules announcement here.)

Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Transportation now stipulates “each fee must be disclosed the first time that fare and schedule information is provided on the airline’s online platform—and cannot be displayed through a hyperlink.”

“Passengers deserve to know upfront what costs they are facing and should get their money back when an airline owes them—without having to ask,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg during the April 24 announcement.

That sounds an awful lot like what Frontier’s “bundles” are designed to get around. But even after the changes, Frontier isn’t informing passengers in its Basic class exactly what the fees are upfront. Not on the first screen when a flight is selected and the fare is quoted, not on the second screen after a purchase proceeds, and not on the third screen requesting the customer’s name and date of birth. 

Is this the “new era” of “transparency” that Frontier CEO Barry Biffle told his staff to tout in a press release?

The AP wasn’t the only media outlet that gave the wrong impression of the changes. CNBC, Fox, and many other newsrooms oversimplified headlines in Frontier’s favor, which was probably the intention Frontier had in issuing such a muddled press release.

You can see for yourself that Frontier is still not heeding the government’s admonition that all fees must be disclosed the “first time that fare and schedule information is provided on the airline’s online platform” for all customers. 

Should you be surprised? After all, Frontier is the airline that wanted to charge you extra for CDC-recommended social distancing during the darkest days of the pandemic, and the airline that dumped its customer service call-in number in 2022.

Spirit, on the other hand, “deserves full credit for eliminating all change fees and cancellation fees for all travelers,” wrote industry expert William McGee on social media. McGee, a consumer affairs columnist for Frommer’s, also pointed out that “misleading headlines have inferred Frontier scrapped such fees for all passengers.”

There’s no need to thank the airlines for what they’re doing for consumers, especially when you consider there will soon be penalties for not taking these steps. Worst of all, Frontier is still obfuscating even as it harvests unearned praise.