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A Guide to Airline Policies as Flying Takes Off Again

It's business as usual with the end of middle-seat blocking, the return of change fees and more

A commercial aircraft taxiing

Abhishek Singh & illuminati visuals/Getty Images

En español | While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks in many indoor settings, the federal government still requires passengers to wear masks on planes, trains and other forms of public transportation, as well as in airports and train stations.

It wasn't going to last forever.

As the nation emerges from the worst of the pandemic, U.S. airlines are steadily rolling back consumer-friendly policies instituted in the early stages of the outbreak.

On May 1, Delta Airlines ended the practice of blocking the middle seat on flights, an effort initiated more than a year earlier to preserve social distancing on planes. It was the last holdout: Other major airlines had announced plans to drop the practice earlier.

Likewise, most airlines have ended or will soon end the policy of offering refunds and waiving change fees on basic economy seats. (But be aware that if an airline cancels or significantly delays your flight, you are entitled to a refund as mandated by the U.S. Department of Transportation.)

The changes don't come as a surprise, say airline experts. The policies date to last spring when demand for flights had plummeted, and airlines were doing anything they could to convince passengers to travel.

But blocking seats was never sustainable, they say.

"Airlines can't survive with one-third of their seats open,” says Bryan Del Monte, president of the Aviation Agency, an air transportation marketing firm. As a rule of thumb, they need to have 80 percent of the seats filled on a plane to make a flight profitable, he says.

And now as airline traffic continues to grow, companies don't have to offer extra incentives to sell tickets, which also explains the unwelcome return of the nonrefundable fare.

Zach Honig, editor-at-large at The Points Guy, a travel advice website, says unless consumers are certain of their travel plans, they should avoid nonrefundable, noncancelable basic economy tickets: “Just like before the pandemic, you're going to be locked into your ticket.”

But he says he hopes one policy adopted in the past year stays around. It's the extensive cleaning of planes between flights, which airlines began when researchers mistakenly thought that COVID-19 was easily transmitted by touching contaminated surfaces.

"I'd like to see that part continue. Nobody's going to complain about having a clean seat or a sanitized tray table. Ultimately it is a pro-consumer move,” he says.


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And Honig would also like airlines to address sustainability, which was largely abandoned as companies moved to heavy use of single-use plastics to avoid the possibility of transmitting the virus. At the same time, they also stopped recycling trash from flights.

Alaska Airlines has announced it will resume recycling plastic bottles and cans, and Honig hopes more will follow. “It's crazy how much plastic and other material we go through on a single flight,” he says.

Below are the latest airline and Amtrak policies.

Alaska Airlines has eliminated change fees on Main and First Class fares, although fare differences apply. Saver fare tickets purchased after May 1, 2021, are nonrefundable and cannot be changed. Through May 31, the airline will block the middle seat in Premium Class. Baggage fees are waived for Alaska Airlines credit card holders and elite-level Mileage Plan members.

Ticket credits that expire in 2021 will be extended through Dec. 31. Food and beverage service has been reduced. On most flights over 350 miles, limited food is available through preorder only. Between flights, a cleaning crew covers the most critical areas using a high-grade disinfectant. More details here.

American Airlines has eliminated change fees for many tickets on domestic and international flights originating in the U.S., although fare differences apply. But Basic Economy tickets bought on or after April 1, 2021, are nonrefundable and nonchangeable. Customers can fly standby on earlier flights for the same destination on the same day at no additional charge. Baggage fees are charged to main cabin customers unless they have elite status or a co-branded credit card.

Credits and vouchers expiring between Jan. 1 and May 31, 2021, can be used for travel through March 31, 2022. The airline offers full beverage service in domestic premium seats, and starting June 1, beverage and snack service will be offered to all customers. It plans to offer alcoholic beverages and food for sale starting this summer. The airline deep cleans tray tables, seat belt buckles, armrests, window shades, seat-back screens, doors and overhead bin handles. More details here.

British Airways (an AARP member-benefit provider) won't charge a change fee for bookings made from March 3, 2020, onwards for trips due to have been completed by April 30, 2022, although fare differences apply.

Each customer receives a personal protection pack with surface wipe and hand sanitizer gel. A crew sanitizes key surfaces before every flight, including seat, screen, seat buckle and tray tables. More details here.

Delta has eliminated change fees for many tickets on domestic and international flights originating in the U.S., although fare differences apply. But Basic Economy tickets purchased after April 30, 2021, are nonrefundable and nonchangeable. Ticket credits expiring in 2021 will remain valid through Dec. 31, 2022, while tickets purchased in 2021 will expire Dec. 31, 2022. Baggage fees are charged to main cabin customers unless they have elite status or a co-branded credit card.

The airline offers snack and limited beverage service to customers on flights over 251 miles, and is reintroducing hot meals for first class and Delta One customers on some long-distance flights, with plans to add boxed meals to more first class flights in July. Crews clean cabin surfaces including tray tables, seat-back screens and lavatories, and spray the cabin with disinfectant. The airline has installed onboard hand sanitizer stations and antimicrobial lavatory lighting on some planes. More details here.

Most airlines have ended or will soon end the policy of offering refunds and waiving change fees on basic economy seats.

JetBlue Airways has suspended cancellation and change fees on new bookings made through May 31. After that, canceling or changing bookings of Blue Basic tickets will cost $100 or $200 depending on the route. Fare differences apply. Travel credits issued between Feb. 27 and June 30, 2020, for flight purchases remain valid for 24 months. The airline offers full beverage service, and food and alcohol for purchase. It cleans and hand disinfects touch points and tray tables between flights, and is adding electrostatic spraying for additional disinfection.

Baggage fees are charged to Blue Basic, Blue and Blue Extra customers unless they have elite status or a co-branded credit card. Blue Basic ticket holders traveling after July 20, 2021, must pay extra to use the overhead bin, unless they have elite status. More details here.

Southwest Airlines allows passengers who cancel their flights at least 10 minutes prior to the scheduled departure to receive a full refund for refundable tickets. For nonrefundable tickets, a customer will receive a travel credit for the full fare that is valid for up to one year from the date of the original ticket's issuance.

The airline disinfects lavatories and tray tables before every flight, and deep cleans each plane for more than six hours every night. Crews also apply an electrostatic disinfectant and an antimicrobial spray on the plane, which is active for 30 days. Each customer is allowed two checked bags without charge, although size and weight limits apply. The airline offers a limited free food and beverage service on flights over 250 miles. More details here.

Spirit Airlines has no fee for changes made up to 60 days before departure, then charges progressively more closer to the date of departure. (The most is $79, for changes made within six days of departure.) The airline hand-cleans touch points and fogs its planes with disinfectants, which are active for 30 days.

Credits issued since March 2020 are redeemable for trips traveled by Dec. 31, 2021, which must be booked by Sept. 30, 2021. The airline offers food and drink for purchase. Menus have been removed from planes but are available on mobile devices. Baggage charges are based on itinerary. More details here.

United has eliminated change fees for many tickets on domestic and international flights originating in the U.S. Fare differences apply. But Basic Economy tickets purchased after April 30, 2021 (May 31, 2021, for international flights), are nonrefundable and nonchangeable. Passengers can also fly standby on earlier flights for the same destination on the same day at no additional charge. Flight credit for tickets issued between May 1, 2019, and March 31, 2021, is valid for travel starting on or before March 31, 2022.

Economy customers on flights two hours and 20 minutes or longer are offered beverage service and a snack bag. Baggage fees are charged to main cabin customers unless they have elite status or a co-branded credit card. The airline disinfects high-touch areas like armrests, door handles and seat belts, uses electrostatic spraying to disinfect the cabin on all aircraft before departure, and provides hand sanitizer wipes as you board the aircraft. More details here.

Amtrak is waiving change fees for reservations made before Sept. 6, 2021; you can make changes online, but for cancellations and refunds, call 800-USA-RAIL. Customers can order food onboard, but must take it back to their seat to eat.

Amtrak stations and trains receive enhanced cleaning, including the use of medical-grade disinfectant, provided through Amtrak's partnership with RB, the makers of Lysol. Passengers can check two bags without charge at stations and routes offering baggage service. More details here.

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