As airlines brace for potential mass layoffs and involuntary furloughs, United Airlines has made a move it hopes will retain customers at a time when air travel has plummeted.
United CEO Scott Kirby told Tom Costello exclusively on TODAY Monday that the airline will be permanently waiving its change fees on all travel within the United States for all but its cheapest flights.
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"Our customers have always asked for that flexibility, and we're giving them the flexibility and confidence that they can buy a ticket and know that if their plans change, if anything changes, they can make that change for free," Kirby said.
The airline had already suspended the standard $200 fee charged to passengers looking to change their flights during the pandemic.
The announcement comes after United has said it may furlough almost 3,000 pilots, the most in its history. Passenger levels have dropped nearly 80%, and business travel has nose-dived 90% since the pandemic began.
In addition to the elimination of the changing fees, passengers will also be allowed to standby for earlier and later flights without paying fees, starting in January.
"We're making the bet, and I think it's the right one, that doing the right thing for customers in the long term is going to pay off," Kirby said.
There will be no changes in luggage fees because United says the cost of transporting luggage is too high to eliminate the fees.
Kirby, who took over as United CEO just as the pandemic began, believes it will be four years before airlines get back to carrying the same number of passengers as last year.
"The leisure demand of going to Disney World or going to casinos in Las Vegas is probably gonna have to wait until there's a vaccine before it really comes back anywhere close to 100%," he said.
The CARES Act passed by Congress in March provided billions in aid to allow airlines to pay employees through next month. But airlines have indicated that tens of thousands of layoffs could be on the horizon in October if there is no more taxpayer assistance.
United says it could shrink its total workforce by one third, which is 36,000 employees. American Airlines has said it will lose 40,000 employees, and Delta Airlines expects to involuntarily furlough 1,900 pilots. Southwest Airlines has had enough voluntary departures to avoid any involuntary furloughs for now.