Flexible airfares during COVID-19: Fee-free changes and cancellations set to end soon

On March 4, 2021, a total of 10 international flights arrived at Melbourne Airport. On that date a year before the number would have been three or four times higher. That same day just 12 international flights arrived at Sydney Airport, five at Brisbane and none at Cairns.

Statistics for passenger traffic at Australian airports show the savage impact of the pandemic on air travel. In December 2020, Melbourne Airport recorded 77 per cent fewer passenger movements than in the previous December. Sydney was hit even harder, down 82 per cent, although Australia's other major airports have fared slightly better. Brisbane Airport saw 62 per cent fewer passengers, Cairns down by 51 per cent, 70 per cent at Adelaide and 73 per cent at Perth, but all pale alongside the 98 per cent drop in international passengers passing through Australia's airports in December 2020 compared with the same time 12 months earlier.

Saddled with mountains of debt, expensive aircraft sitting idle, crew salaries and facilities that need to be maintained, airlines are haemorrhaging cash – and dealing with a crisis in confidence beyond their control.

When states and countries can close their borders and impose a travel lockdown faster than you can pack your bags, travellers need confidence and that's why airlines around the globe are now building flexibility into their fares, allowing travellers to change their travel dates without cost.

Fee-free changes aboard Australia's airlines

Book any Qantas flight before the end of April 2021 and you can change your date of travel as often as you like. For Qantas domestic, trans-Tasman and international flights booked before April 30, 2021, you can make changes for travel at any date until February 28, 2022 with no change fee.

The new travel date must be within 12 months of your original date of travel. If a higher fare applies to your new booking you'll pay the difference. If the price of the new booking is lower, Qantas isn't saying you qualify for a refund.

Virgin Australia is offering a similar deal. Make a VA booking before April 30, 2021 and you can make fee-free changes for travel up to January 31, 2022. "Fare differences may apply", according to VA, and the airline will also allow a change of destination. The deal applies to all domestic, trans-Tasman and international short-haul VA flights to destinations other than Tonga, Rarotonga and Port Moresby.

Jetstar also allows flight changes, but not on Jetstar's basic Starter fare. Jetstar only allows changes to your booking date by stumping up an additional fee for Jetstar's Flex bundle. That lets you change to another flight on the day of travel with no fee, and any fare difference "may apply". You can also cancel your booking and receive a voucher for future travel, available right up until check-in time on the date of your original booking. On a $406 Sydney-Cairns return flight in April, the Flex bundle adds $136 to the fare, and that doesn't include a single kilo of checked baggage, although you do get 14kgs of carry-ons.

International airlines

Any traveller with an Emirates ticket issued on or after October 1, 2020 with a travel date up to September 30, 2021 and whose plans have been affected by COVID-19 can re-book to fly within 24 months after the original booking date, or request a refund. You can also change your destination, provided it's within the same region in the same booking class, with no extra charge. For example if you originally booked to London, you could re-book to Copenhagen without paying extra.

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For any ticket issued up to April 30, 2021, Qatar Airways allows changes to the booking date and destination within the same class, with no fees and as often as required, although a fare difference will apply. Passengers can also apply for a refund of the unutilised value of any tickets with no penalties or refund fees.

Singapore Airlines and its subsidiary SilkAir are offering rebooking on any ticket issued before June 30, 2021 with no extra charge, but a fare difference will apply. Until June 30, 2021, unlimited date changes are allowed but after that date only one further fee-free change is possible. Any booking change must be not more than 12 months after the ticket's date of issue, not the date of travel.

Will flexi fares continue?

No, according to Alan Joyce. At the CAPA Australia Pacific Aviation Summit in September 2020, the Qantas CEO said "Is that (flexibility) going to continue indefinitely? It can't. If every airfare is going to be flexible, your revenue management system I think fundamentally breaks down over the long term."

In predicting an end to flexible fares, Qantas is in lockstep with airlines around the world. American Airlines is waiving change fees, but only for bookings up to March 31, 2021. United Airlines has the same offer, while Delta offers fee-free changes or cancellation on tickets purchased before March 30, 2021, provided travel is completed within one year of the original ticket issue date.

British Airways customers with bookings made from March 3, 2020 for travel completed by April 30, 2022 can change destination and dates by completing an online voucher form. For tickets issued after August 31, 2020 for travel commencing up to May 31, 2021, Lufthansa group airlines offer one fee-free change to a new date, provided travel begins before December 31, 2021.

One caveat that applies to all airlines offering fee-free flexible bookings, your airline will only allow a date and/or destination changes if you booked direct with the airline. If you made your booking through an online travel agent specialising in cheap fares, you're out of luck (unless that agent is offering their own flexible booking policy).

Regardless of which airline you're travelling with, by mid-2021 the sun will set on the option to make fee-free date/destination changes and normal service will resume. In the past, when airlines were flying with healthy passenger loads, if you wanted to make a change to your date of travel the airline charged you – unless you'd vaulted yourself into a higher fare category when you made the booking. Like excess baggage and seat selection, the freedom to change your date of travel incurs an ancillary charge, and that's where airlines cash in.

Also, it's not in the airlines' interest. Sour weather, civil unrest, a tsunami – there are plenty of reasons that could persuade travellers to delay their flights. If they could do that with no penalty, the airline might find itself flying a near-empty aircraft.

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