Why some air travelers are pulling a “no show”

Even though he couldn’t use his airline ticket, Eric Smith refused to cancel his reservation on a United Airlines flight from Omaha to Baltimore.

The reason? Smith, a technician at an aerospace company in Montgomery Village, Md., ran a few numbers, with frustrating results.

His return ticket cost $134, plus baggage fees. But United’s change fee, which was recently raised from $150 to $200, would have completely zeroed out the value of his credit. So he booked a one-way return flight on Southwest Airlines for $152 — about the same as his original flight, including baggage fees — and never looked back.

“Why should I spend any of my precious time on hold to cancel the ticket when I get absolutely nothing out of it?” he says. “To do the airline a favor? Do you think they would do me any favors?”

No one knows exactly how many passengers pull a no-show when their change fees exceed the value of their ticket credit, deliberately depriving an airline of its ability to resell their seats. But by almost all accounts, their numbers are rising, as airlines continue to raise the price of changing a nonrefundable airline ticket.

A United Airlines spokesman declined to comment on the subject of intentional no-shows in general, and Smith’s case in particular. But it’s hardly the only airline faced with customers who are angry about elevated change fees.

When Laura Attwood wanted to change her recent ticket on Alaska Airlines from Anchorage to Ketchikan to an earlier flight on the same day, the carrier told her that it would be happy to make the change as long as she paid a $100 fee. She refused, choosing instead to cash in miles for a new flight.

“In fact, I checked in and picked my seat on the flight I wasn’t going to make, and confirmed it,” says Attwood, who lives in Maple Bluff, Wis. “That way, they couldn’t resell my seat. I was so mad that I had to pay a change fee.”

An Alaska Airlines representative acknowledged that the airline experiences deliberate no-shows on some flights, although she wouldn’t say how many. Yet its change fees are far more reasonable than those of other airlines. Alaska charges $75 for an online change and $100 if it’s done through a call center. Effective Oct. 30, its call-center change fee jumps to $125. But any changes made two months before a flight don’t incur any fees.

“It’s an issue for us,” says Marianne Lindsey, a spokeswoman for the airline. “When we experience no-shows, it results in unused seats, which translates to lost revenue.”

The task of ensuring that these strategic absences aren’t felt in the bottom line falls to airlines’ sophisticated revenue-management programs, which are designed to oversell a flight based on a calculation that a certain number of passengers won’t show up.

“On certain fares, and on certain routes, there will be a higher number of no-shows,” says Warren Lieberman, president of the technology consulting firm Veritec Solutions and one of the pioneers in the field of airline revenue management. “If they’re selling tickets for $149, you can predict that more passengers will walk away from the fare, because the change fee is $200.”

But the programs handling airline seat inventory, which are called yield-management systems, don’t need to be reset when change fees increase. Rather, the algorithms are “self-adjusting” and will automatically tweak prices and seat availability to fit passengers’ behavior, says Lieberman. In other words, they already know that passengers like Attwood and Smith won’t make their flights.

Hari Subramanian, a director for Sabre, a travel technology company, says that it’s essential to use these systems to anticipate passenger behavior. “No one is going to come out and say, ‘This is what we’re willing to pay for a ticket,’ ” he says. “Or, ‘We won’t show up for the flight if you do that.’ ”

In the airline industry, this kind of high-tech soothsaying is known as passenger choice modeling. It collects data about passenger behavior, including fares, connections, time of day and the type of traveler, and uses complex mathematical formulas to help airlines determine how many seats they can sell, and at what price. The modeling helps an airline make money.

And airlines are making lots of money from change fees. The domestic airlines collected more than $2.5 billion in ticket-change fees in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, up from $2.4 billion a year before.

But perhaps unwittingly, American carriers have also begun playing a cat-and-mouse game with their own customers, in which they raise fees, and passengers in turn try to sabotage the revenue-management systems by walking away from a ticket credit that has been partially or fully consumed by a change fee.

Subramanian says that passengers can avoid the game by making smarter booking choices. The preferred airline solution is to buy a fully refundable ticket. But those fares are typically priced for business travelers on an expense account and can be three to four times as expensive as a nonrefundable ticket.

He recommends looking for a so-called “flexible fare,” which some airlines offer — a special ticket that includes the benefit of waiving certain surcharges and would allow you to change your plans without having to pay a $200 fee.

The long-term solution, of course, is for both sides to practice a little restraint. Already, airlines such as Alaska and JetBlue have shown that there’s some middle ground, and their experience suggests that passengers are willing to accept some fees, as long as they’re reasonable. Southwest Airlines seems to confound even the experts by having no change fees at all.

And what if airlines and their customers can’t come to an understanding? It’s difficult to imagine change fees climbing any further without the government stepping in and saying, “Enough.”

Are airline change fees reasonable?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • plawler

    That’s very easy to say. In practice, loading a plane in a timely manner makes it very difficult to accomplish. It’s pretty obvious on the plane when the bag doesn’t fit. It’s much harder to tell a belligerant passenger holding up the line at the gate that the bag won’t fit. Having to measure every suspect bag at the gate would unacceptably delay boarding. Not to mention the problem is often not the dimensions but the sheer number of “barely legal” bags.

  • dwasifar karalahishipoor

    “Are airline fees reasonable?” Well, duh. If they were reasonable, people would pay them instead of walking away from paid reservations.

  • dave3029

    With the published time requirements for both domestic and international flights, all passengers are required to be at their gates well in advance of loading and departure. Process change to make announcements that any bags not meeting the carry-on requirements will not be allowed on the plane would allow anyone the opportunity to use the size tester at the gate well in advance of boarding. Gate agents could use color-coded tags (changed with each flight to defeat possible cheaters) to tag bags they’ve verified as “passed”. Come time to board, any bag not tagged that looks like it won’t fit, the passenger is pulled aside to test at that point. No arguments – – the bag passes or it doesn’t. Oversize bags get stuffed in with the checked bags, they do not get on as carry-on. Any arguments, the passenger is pulled for interfering with the crew, just like on the plane. It would only take a few times for this to happen and everyone will learn to obey the rules… as they should.

  • whatexit

    NO WAY….The last thing air travelers need is government getting involved. This is a sure fire way to make things WORSE..
    Besides, the airline industry and commercial aviation in general is already heavily regulated. Let’s not let that genie out of the bottle!

  • whatexit

    Typically, most carriers permit one carry on and one personal item such as a purse or computer bag.
    With fees climbing to cruising altitude, passengers are cheating big time. The latest thing is the back pack.
    I have seen people with one carry bag, one back pack and another ‘personal item. In one case I witnessed a fellow passenger with the following. Big winter coat. Back pack. Duffle bag. And what looked like a computer bag. I was looking at this dolt as he was removing the coat and stuffing it into the overhead while keeping others from getting to their seats. He happened to open the “computer bag” and in it appeared to be more clothing. In my view, this is a carry on luggage bag. He was over the limit. He should be charged to check those items. This schmuck crammed all his crap and when I got to my bag for deplaning, it looked like it had been in a 6 ton press. I sneered at this moron. He looked at me like I was the bad guy. I kind of moved him aside, shoved his crap out of my way and on my out, made sure I shouldered him to show my displeasure.
    As far as I am concerned the carry on count should be TWO. It should not matter if the bag in carried in one’s hand or worn on the back. It’s a bag and that’s that..
    The other thing is winter travel. I have seen people wearing TWO winter coats. Of course before they seat themselves they lose the coats and stuff them into the over head bin leaving no room for anyone else’s stuff.
    My rule, if it’s clothing you wore while boarding, You wear it during the flight. If you choose to remove the item, it counts toward your carry on count. If you don’t wear it, you pay up.

  • whatexit

    Carriers fuel aircraft based on the number of passengers expected to fly on a particular flight. While it may seem insignificant when 150 to 175 lbs does not show up, it costs the carrier more in fuel because the plane is filled to the amount needed to carry the anticipated weight. If there are fewer people on board, there is no need for the fuel.
    Of course this is pure speculation on my part. IMO it does have logic though

  • Bill___A

    I know the change fees don’t make it economical, but if I am not going to fly, I’ve always (so far) shown the courtesy of letting them know. It isn’t a money thing, it is more of a consideration thing. Despite the complaining I do here, I make an effort to be a good passenger and so far, the airlines haven’t treated me all that badly.
    I do get annoyed by some things, but generally I keep it to myself whilst on the plane.

  • Mel65

    “It’s an issue for us,” says Marianne Lindsey, a spokeswoman for the airline. “When we experience no-shows, it results in unused seats, which translates to lost revenue.”
    Well, that’s not true in the instances above, because they got the $ for the seats. They didn’t get DOUBLE revenue, which no doubt they’d have preferred, but they aren’t operating that flight at a loss due to the no-show.
    I’m a govt. contractor and I often fly on short notice and I’ve walked away from tickets when it’s just not fiscally responsible to pay a change fee and fare difference that’s far more than buying a one way ticket on a competing flight because plans were OBE. I once spent over an hour on the phone w/ an airline trying to understand how the return portion of a $700 flight was “worth” only $134, and of course the change fee was $150. Airline math should be offered as an elective in college so that consumers can understand what they’re paying for!

  • bodega3

    If you are a noshow and then reuse your fare on another flight, then yes, that seat was lost revenue. Pretty simple math. As for your return flight cost, that will depend on the fare for your return flight. It isn’t always half of the outbound flight. The fare basis is how this is all calculated and your return sounds like it was different than the outbound. Ticket exchanges are a PITA for both sides!

  • jet2x2

    I experienced this with Frontier recently and it did not delay boarding. They did it before boarding and well before boarding time. If your boarding pass didn’t have a mark on it from them checking the bag, you had to step out of line and check the bag. No one tried to board with a bag that was too big. The only people who were irritated were the ones who didn’t hear the 3 announcements asking people to come up with their bags before boarding. Interestingly they did not do this on the return flight.

  • Helio

    I have exactly the same question!

  • Mel65

    Hmmm not sure what you mean by “reuse my fare on another flight”. What I do, if the amount they would credit me is less than the change fee, is let them keep the fare difference and find myself another flight that is less than the cost of the change fee plus fare difference. Now if that isn’t possible, of course I just suck it up and change my original ticket. But I’ve found one ways that were $199 when the change fee plus rate difference was $450 and it simply wasn’t worth it. So, they can “keep” the remaining dollars of my unused ticket. Or do you mean if I don’t alert them so they can sell the seat to someone else? Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t…frankly, it depends on how helpful they were when I called/talked to the agent :)

  • bodega3

    Most APEX domestic fares require you to notify the carrier prior to departure or you risk forfeiting your fare for reuse. Also, a carrier like USAIR, no longer allows you to use the old fare for the change fee and then do an add collect for the difference. So if you have $199 in unused fare (taxes, fees and surcharges are not a part of the fare), you apply the $199 to a new ticket and if that new ticket is less than $199 you don’t get a residual, then you pay the change fee, plus taxes, fees and surcharges. I have clients not bother, and start anew, but most still reuse the first ticket again within their ticketing and travel deadlines.

  • bayareascott

    That screws other customers on standby, not the airline.

  • Marcin Jeske

    I usually have two carry-ons: a roll-aboard that exactly fits, wheels-to-the-back, in pretty much every overhead bin except for those tiny commuter jets, and a backpack (“the personal item”) which stores my computer and is stuffed with a bunch of other stuff.

    I sometimes feel I get dirty looks from people who share your opinion… but that’s only because you imagine me stuffing both in the overhead bins, and then maybe adding in some coats as well. The truth is that I am respectful of other passengers stowage needs… my backpack always goes under the seat in front of me (a very tight fit) unless the overheads are very empty or I am seated at a bulkhead, exit row, or where the underseat space is limited by something.

    Winter coats are blankets or pillows, unless again the overheads have plenty of space… or once in flight, I find an appropriate space among other baggage. My carry-ons often contain things that are not allowed in checked baggage anyway, like electronics. I hope even the hardliners admit that everyone can claim their approx. 14in portion of an overhead.

    As an aside, it is remarkable how horribly inefficiently people manage to position their bags in the overhead when space is at a premium. Everything from placing wheeled roll-aboards lengthwise, when they have been painstakingly designed to fit wheels first, to deciding coats need their own space rather than being on top of other luggage.

    Some interesting dynamics come into play when on small commuter flights where full-size carry-ons need to be gate checked. I have flown on Alaska’s “puddle-jumpers”, mostly the hourly Portland-Seattle shuttle, which don’t use jetways, board on the tarmac, and have a cart by the plane to leave your big carry-on. I had packed my large carry-on so that some essentials like batteries and electronics, which have to be carry-on, were in a small bag that I could easily take out before putting my bag on the cart. As I stood in line at the gate, I removed the small bag so I could board the plane quickly. Seconds later, the agent checking my boarding pass noted that I now had three items (backpack, small bag, big carry-on), and she would have to check one (for a fee! – even as she help my boarding pass which showed I had free checked bags). I said I had to remove the small bag from the big bag, and she said that’s fine as long as I do it behind her… she could not let me through with three items. So I put it back in my bag, walked passed her, and took it out again. Because rules are rules!

    Which is a long way of saying… while I appreciate that good rules are the foundation of a just and efficient society (and airplane journey), I am dismayed by people who seem to want stringent and excessive enforcement of rules for their own sake, without regard to the actual purpose, which is to provide everyone a safe, comfortable, and affordable travel service.

  • Marcin Jeske

    I don’t think so… if you don’t check-in by the check-in time (usually 30-40 minutes prior to departure), you lose your seat. But if you are checked in, you have until roughly 10 minuted prior to departure to show up. That gives airlines an extra 20-30 minute window to re-use the seat.

    While I am just as annoyed as everyone else with airline change policies, the “revenge tactics” described in this post are likely most harmful to other passengers.

    For airlines, it just means some extra cost programming their systems to anticipate no-shows (extra cost passed on to us in ticket prices).

    For passengers, if you have ever been desperate to get home to a loved one or to an important meeting, and hoping a seat might open up on the next flight out, or you have been bumped from a flight because the airline computers miscalculated (or calculated that your “compensation” is worth the price paid for that last walk-up ticket they sold)… you are the losers in this game of revenge.

    If passengers truly escalate this… I can only guess that airlines will retaliate (if they haven’t already) by tracking no-shows and treating them like those who take advantage of hidden city fares to get cheaper flights to hub airports. This isn’t a battle we can win, except to patronize those airlines who are most reasonable about changes. (Cancellation fees as a percentage of fare?)

  • Marcin Jeske

    I understand why you think so… and it makes sense not to waste your time when you get no benefit from it.

    But don’t think you are really hurting the airline. Chances are, they already have sold your seat (that’s what overbooking is) because they predicted that you (or some other passenger, they don’t care, you all look the same to the airline) would no-show.

    Your decision to cancel or not most likely affects another traveler… they have to make a last minute flight…

    … if you cancel, they can book the seat and be certain to fly.
    … if you hold the ticket, they are the ones standing by the gate, stressed out hoping that a seat will open up.

    Either way, the airline gets your money. The airline get their money. The airlines gets all our money. It’s like the prisoners’ dilemma, cooperate or everyone loses (except the airline), but eventually, the airline too, as flying descends further into a chaotic morass of inconvenience, stress, and fees.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    That makes sense. So really, all it’s doing is screwing the passengers. I’m guessing that most of the folks waiting around to get one of those seats are passengers standby passengers, not new purchases (e.g how would they get past security). You’ve confirmed that this is a truly ill-advised strategy

  • http://www.bangaloreaviation.com/ Devesh Agarwal

    In India the change fee is typically Rs. 1,500 which is about $25.00 PLUS the difference in air-fare i.e. what is the lowest fare available on the new flight at the time of making the change. Typically 30 day advance fares are between $50 to $75 and this normally doubles when within 7 days of the flight i.e. to about $100 to $150 and on some busy periods can even triple within 72 hours of the flight.

    So while a typical change costs totally about $75 to $100, because the airline gives the passenger a credit value to the old ticket they ensure that they earn a decent change fee, but still retain the customer and changing is still cheaper than buying a new ticket, and hence no deliberate no-shows as well.

    May be the US carriers can take a leaf out of this.

  • Debbie_K

    How is this possible — If I Paid for a seat on Flight 1 and Paid for a seat on flight 2 — they collected revenue for both seats whether I actually sit in them or not….

    “When we experience no-shows, it results in unused seats, which translates to lost revenue.”

  • bodega3

    Because the fare paid, as long as you cancel prior to departure on the first segment, is reusable. So therefore, that first booking many not get resold and the next flight you take you use the fare from the first ticket to buy it.

  • Blamona

    Every flight I’ve taken lately has a long standby waiting list for each plane, so they fill your seat if not at the gate 10 minutes prior even if you checked in. Their system must work for them, because I’ve seen very few empty seats on most of my flights (regardless where I go)