As Air Travel Begins To Rebound, Airlines Are Already Making Big Changes

A few convenient pandemic perks are about to be jettisoned

Airliners at gates and Control Tower at LAX
Michael H / Getty Images

Earlier this week, we reported on the first substantial twinklings of an air travel recovery—and airlines have already begun taking their cue by announcing policy changes. For better or worse, these changes are an early signal that many airlines may believe this comeback is the real deal.

Last year, to appeal to wary travelers and adjust for the pandemic's constant unpredictability, almost every U.S. airline axed change fees regardless of fare class—even for basic economy. Sadly, this convenient pandemic perk is about to be jettisoned. The change in change fees will apply to all basic economy class fares across airlines and, in some cases, to all tickets purchased after a certain date.

Mark your calendars: change fees are coming back to basic economy tickets purchased or issued on March 30, 2021, for Delta; on March 31, 2021, for Alaska Airlines, Hawaiian, JetBlue, and United; and on April 1, 2021, for American. (However, you should still be able to get a full refund or change your ticket within 24 hours of purchase if the airline honors the buyer’s remorse rule.)

While the specifics vary from airline to airline, the slight upswing here is that this change in change fees doesn’t always apply to tickets purchased in other fare classes (and sometimes for award tickets). However, though many airlines originally announced this could be a permanent change, the reality is that it can alter at any time.

That said, Southwest Airlines has created a dedicated following for coloring outside of the lines regarding airline procedure and policy. Besides being the only U.S. airline to offer no change fees ever, love it or hate it, Southwest is also known for its unique boarding process. Instead of assigning seats, at check-in, passengers are assigned a place in line. When it’s their turn to board, they can choose from any available seat on the plane.

While they normally board in groups of 30, Southwest lowered boarding group numbers to 10 at a time during the pandemic. As of March 15, the airline switched back to boarding in groups of 30. “Many customers are familiar with Southwest's standard boarding style, and the expectation for the normal boarding process was becoming increasingly important as additional customers return to travel with us,” Southwest spokesperson Dan Landon said in a statement.

Additionally, a few airlines have begun restoring some semblance of in-flight food and/or drink service in the main cabin—or have plans to within the next few weeks. This month, Southwest brought back free soft drinks, while Delta is planning a return of in-cabin alcohol sales next month (April 2021).

The changes we see in these fees, boarding processes, and cabin services also have some people worried that another big change is on the horizon: higher fares. There has been recent speculation that the recent rebound in air travel has already become a catalyst for airlines hiking up fares. However, the online travel site Expedia doesn’t think we’re quite there yet. And if current promotional sale fares from $49-$64 from Southwest and JetBlue, respectively, for flights taking off during the peak travel period of late spring and summer are any indication—neither are some airlines.

According to site data, Expedia says current flight prices are still lower than pre-pandemic prices for the same time period in 2019. Just how much lower? Well—just like always—that depends where you’re headed and when. For example, Expedia says that mid-April flights from New York City to Orlando are starting around $230 but were closer to $300 back in 2019. And, if you inch the departure date closer to peak summer dates, you’ll find that same route going for a measly $51 in mid-May.

“All of this is great for travelers,” Christie Hudson, senior PR manager for Expedia North America, told TripSavvy, “but it’s worth noting that we are seeing airlines respond to the increased demand, so these lower prices aren’t likely to last too much longer especially for popular destinations and routes.”

While we may not get around change fees or boarding numbers, Hudson has a few suggestions for monitoring any potentially big price hikes. She says travelers should start setting up price alerts now for the places they want to go this spring and summer and try searching for flights via a flexible dates option.