I Don’t Like Airline Change Fees Either, But I’m Not a Buffoonish US Senator

The U.S. Senate is sometimes called the “world’s greatest deliberative body.”

The Senate of the United States was formed on the example of the ancient Roman Senate. The name is derived from the senatus, Latin for council of elders

In this grand tradition, Senator Chuck Schumer wants airlines to reverse their recent increases in change fees on non-refundable tickets.

The New York Democrat said on Sunday that higher fees recently implemented by Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, American Airlines, and U.S. Airways make it difficult for families on budgets to travel, according to the Associated Press.

The four carriers recently raised fees on ticket changes from $150 to $200

The distinguished Senator Schumer’s Wikipedia entry describes his political style,

Schumer’s propensity for publicity is the subject of a running joke among many commentators. He has been described as an “incorrigible publicity hound”.[19] Bob Dole once quipped that “the most dangerous place in Washington is between Charles Schumer and a television camera”,[20] while Barack Obama joked that Schumer brought along the press to a banquet as his “loved ones”

But is it fair to say that the airlines are making travel unaffordable?

In inflation-adjusted 2000 dollars, the average airfare in 1979 was $442.88. In those same 2000 dollars, the average airfare plus related fees in 2011 was $279.60.

What’s more, the average trip distance has increased over 33 years from 1947 miles roundtrip to 2351 miles roundtrip.

The inflation adjusted cost per mile (fare plus fees) was 23 cents in 1979 and 12 cents in 2011.

I had this exchange on Twitter about Senator Schumer’s call for rolling back change fees.

Do you really trust Chuck Schumer to make your travel fantasies come true?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Your travel blog often takes a political tone. It’s distasteful in my opinion and weakens what you try to do with travel, in my opinion. Most People come to boardingarea.com for opinion and information on travel…not political punduntry.

  2. Just another example of government butting in where it doesn’t belong. Next up, Government setting prices at wal-mart

  3. Unlike Tom I appreciate the analysis on the travel industry. Sure it is biased by Gary’s views but it’s his honest assessment of things…

  4. @ Tom is right, stick to travel minus your politics. This is View from the Wing, not View from the ‘Right Wing’. BOOM!!! Can I get an AMEN?!?!? Anyone? Anyone? No? Fine. G Leff, I don’t care what all the others say about you. You’re alright with me.

  5. Honestly, I fail to see much difference between Schumer’s bloviating and this post’s bloviating about his bloviating.

    Less bloviating all around would probably make the world a better place.

    (Four uses in two sentences, can I get some miles for that?)

  6. Its important because government has to approve all these airline mergers(anti trust) which has led to reduced capacity/competition and hence higher fees.

  7. Complaining about a politician grandstanding is like complaining about an airline hiding its total price.

    It’s what they do for a living.

  8. My first thought was why is an “ExecPlatinum” so sorry about bag fees. West Wing troll for sure.

    (Oh, crap, now my computer usage and phone calls will be monitored too…)

  9. I’m sick and tired of people trying to compare today’s airfare with 60s or 70s or even 80s. Airfares are too high today. Accept it. We never had this many planes/passanger like we have today in 60s or 70s or even 80s. Whats next? compare the cost of hard drive?? In 1956 5 MB HARD Drive was the super computer and cost was in millions. Should we start buying 2GB thumb drive in millions too today???

  10. Say what you want about my Senator, but he has a point. How often do we read stories from the ‘average Joe’ that gets sandbagged by airline fees. Maybe he missed his first flight, and the airline canceled his return. Maybe an airline won’t give a person a break when they need to fly asap to a funeral. And now the airlines are raising change fees?? I remember a time when bloggers (Gary?) called out the airlines for this (the first time, let alone the second and third). This happens all to often I’m afraid.

    What bothers me more is that Gary and Randy and others depend on the airlines to help their business. A conflict of interest??

    Many of the bloggers (once regular people), seem to justify taking the side of the airline and airline industry. I was shocked when I read Gary thinking the jetBlue fees were a good idea. Even Randy (who I love dearly,) has many times over the years come down on what I feel is the wrong side of an issue.

    So before anyone makes fun of Senator Chuck, remember this, someone has to take up the fight. The travel blogging world has long ago left the ‘average Joe’.

  11. Gary, where do you cite that Sen. Schumer claims airlines are making travel unaffordable? You make an argumentative leap to get to that conclusion. Surely he may have claimed it somewhere? Even still, it would be reasonable to actually cite it above. If talking strictly about change fees making it “difficult” for families on budgets then you’re inflating that statement to make a claim that fits your argument.

    @nsx at flyertalk — completely agree, this is the stuff politicians are made of, so what’s really getting under your skin Gary? In fact, compared against actual grandstanding, this is hardly an issue, if at all (real issue to compare between now and in the past is the number of add on fees from checking bags, to buying food, to no free snacks, etc. — these things create a “culture” of nickel and diming customers; not everything is understood in inflation adjusted dollars).

    Often times this blog has taken the perspective of cherry picking political “travel” related topics, but it’s almost as if you thrive off the high of proving someone or something wrong. As a result, and ironically, you do quite a bit of grandstanding on this blog yourself.

  12. @Tom – Um, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but a politician wants to regulate the travel industry. Seems like that would be worthy of being included in a travel blog, no?

    @dhammer53 – Airlines are not charities. They are for profit businesses. If they can make money charging for something, they’re going to do so. Deal with it. And you do realize that if fees are banned airfares will rise, right?

  13. @Brian L: No politician is suggesting regulating airline fees, not did Gary suggest that’s the case. Schumer’s simply expressing an opinion and exhorting the airline to make a change in their policy — something that this blog (and others) do frequently as well.

  14. “Say what you want about my Senator, but he has a point.”

    No he doesn’t

    Flying’s too expensive for a family?

    So then they shouldn’t fly.

    Contrary to Schumer/popular belief, flying to the Bahamas isn’t a constitutional right that all citizens are entitled to

    It’s truly scary that there are politicians that think they are supposed to get involved in things like this

  15. While I don’t always agree with Gary, I think it’s silly to criticize him for expressing his views about travel issues IN HIS OWN TRAVEL BLOG. Gary is not a reporter. He is a commentator. And his commentary is informed and well-reasoned, and ABOUT TRAVEL. Now if Gary started giving us his opinions about abortion and health care, there would be reason to complain.

    I also think Senator Schumer is free to express his opinions, even though they seem less well-reasoned than Gary’s. Like Schumer says “the higher fees recently implemented . . . . make it difficult for families on budgets to travel.” How exactly is that the case? The latest fees are only if you change your plans. And the fees were already extremely painful, so families on a budget who were likely to change their plans were already in a heap of trouble. If Schumer wants to make a real contribution to this debate, he could advocate for innovations for the way fees are charged. Like what about lower fees for kids? I’m not saying that the airlines are likely to go along, but if he wants to help families, there are creative solutions that are possible.

    I also share Gary’s concern that “advocacy” by a U.S. Senator smacks of a desire for more regulation. And if you think the U.S. Government would do a better job providing air transportation than the airline industry does, I might point you to the way Amtrak is run.

  16. Calling a democratic senator a buffoon seems to be letting your dayjob merge with your travel blog. Lord knows there have been equally “buffoonish” things by Republicans that have been more temperately addressed.

  17. Gary, thanks for reminding us yet again that following your associate links helps to fund your one sided partisan bitch fests. Your political pandering is about as boring and predictable as it gets.

  18. Gary: I appreciate your comments and opinions about travel industry subjects. Your opinions give insight into subjects that I might not be aware of. If I agree or disagree is not the issue. Agree as pointed out before that your opinions about health care is not appropriate, but that has not been an issue. This reader will continue reading your blog and I THANK YOU.

  19. First, recall just a few days ago I made clear I thought the increase in change fees could be unwise and counterproductive. A sitting US senator, opining from his position as such, is silly — whether coming from a Democrat or a Republican.

    Second, I’m not a Republican. I am pro-civil liberties. I’m pro-immigration. I believe in same-sex marriage, in drug legalization. I opposed the war in Iraq from the very start (and published an article lambasting the Bush administration in the fall of 2001 when it was very much considered uncool to do so).

    Senator Schumer is a buffoon and when he makes silly claims about travel I may well comment on them.

    Ultimately this blog is about sharing what’s on my mind, my reaction to things which are predominantly in some way touching the travel space since that’s where I spend a good bit of my free time thinking. Often the thoughts are about promotions, redemptions, Sometimes they’re about how travel is distributed (online, via agents). And other times it’s about how travel is regulated (by the TSA, taking away our rights, or by grandstanding politicos).

    At one point or another I’m likely to anger most folks, and hopefully occasionally entertain or provide useful information. Such is life, and I’m cool with that.

    Thanks for reading, all in any case, and joining along for the ride!

  20. Gary, it’s your blog. You can’t make everyone happy, nor should you. If they don’t like reading it’s easy enough to unsubscribe to updates or simply stop visiting the site. I enjoy reading your articles no matter how they’re slanted.

  21. I’m not saying Gary shouldn’t express his opinions in HIS blog. I’m just saying that expressing political views can have Consequences. These consequences include just exactly what Ken says… Readers go away. Gary I’ve clicked on your credit card links and been approved. I’ve steered friends and coworkers toward your links and the cards have been approved. I can go away if you like.

  22. Y’all are all welcome here, and I hope you continued to find reading valuable. But I don’t steer only towards safe topics. Although I rather expected “Chuck Schumer is a buffoon” (in this case, when he talks travel) to be fairly uncontroversial and non-political. Most of the Democratic political-types in know in DC share the feeling. This was certainly not a D vs R post. And in any case, as I say above, I’m not an R. Although I get I probably criticize Democrats more frequently, which is natural since they’re the party in power (controlling the executive branch is what drives most things travel-related). I was highly critical of the previous administration as well.

  23. You can call yourself pro civil liberties or whatever else. Anyone who has read this blog knows you’re a right wing attack dog. You may think you’re subtle but you’re not.

  24. My political views are to the left of 95% of the US population, but I can’t see anything wrong with this post and don’t see Gary as a right wing attack dog when he writes about politics. I don’t think Schumer is a buffoon, but his popular media stunts are both odious and a waste of time. Especially as he is really not a populist (we would have ended the ridiculous carried tax exemption for hedge fund managers if it hadn’t been for him torpedoing it) and so uses this sort of stunt to give him a veneer of being a “man of the people”.

  25. TV airtime is filled with people expressing opinions.

    When, did expressing your opinion on something that a lot of people have an opinion about, make you a “buffoon”?

    I know plenty of flyers upset about getting slammed with fees for this and that. What’s next? Fees for carryons? Fees for a winter jacket? Would you be upset if Chuck expressed his opinion after flying RyanAir and being charged a hefty fee to reprint a boarding pass?

    Nowhere in the linked article is he said to be calling for legal action. I have bones to pick with Chuck Schumer, but this doesn’t rate.

  26. Leaving the bizarre politicization aside, your statistics hardly support your position that airfare hasn’t gotten more expensive.

    For one, why pick 1979 as a starting point? Is that the right timeframe simply because data is available since then? Are the people who flew then the ones that are most affected by the increase in airfare, which that same site verifies has happened for the last 10 years? The correct timeframe would be a weighted time distribution of volume of flying by the general flying public (which I can almost guarantee would skew closer to now than 1979 since, as you pointed out, miles flown have increased a lot).

    Otherwise, you could use that same argument to say just about everything ever made has become more affordable simply because production costs naturally drop for most goods.

    Sure, your simple approach is easy to explain (and calculate), but it is very misleading and completely wrong, and those of us with a stronger economics understanding could just as easily call your analysis buffoonish.

  27. @Steve relevant dates tie to implementation of the Airline Deregulation Act. Flying volume has gone ip as cost has come down. And real inflation adjusted cost isn’t up over 10 years.

  28. Frankly Gary would have had a similar reaction to any Senator doing the same thing. The fake populism is obvious. A family of four sees change fees go from $600 to $800, so now it’s harder to travel? Why is that? Which family is going to decide not to fly because now it will cost $800 if we have to change our tickets, whereas we were fine with flying if it would cost only $600? If you don’t change your ticket, the increase in price is meaningless. If you do change your ticket, the cost was high already before the increase.

  29. The Senators comments may not mirror yours but that hardly rates the label of buffoon. Statements such as your do not promote useful discussion nor dialog, stick you your strengths.

  30. Seems like a pretty good argument and all, but what about all of the taxes/PFCs? A quick look at an AA rt IAD-SFO for ~1k, taxes and 9/11fees account for more than 10% of the fare. Of course I suppose the difference is that Sen Schumer can only change airline fees with “demands” and new legislation, yet, the legislation currently on the books imposing such fees are “fare” for hard working families.

  31. Three cheers for Chuck Schumer. He isn’t going far enough. We need to get rid of ALL ancillary fees and go back to the simple one-fare-ticket, that is totally clear to all parties concerned and taxable by the government. Please keep your political opininos out of the blog. Thank you.

  32. Oh please @Andrew, if your solution were the right one then you are all but admitting Schumer’s “save the families” stance is BS. Welcome to capitalism – change to a no-fee one fare system and the airlines will need to raise fares to compensate and those (more common) families of 4 who don’t change their tickets will all be paying hundreds more. Please keep your political blindness out of the comments. Thank you.

  33. When Schumer says fees suck and should be rolled back he is “a buffoon.”

    But VFTW criticized the increase in fees itself.

    Thing is, the airlines are not going to get nervous about much less respond to what a points and miles blogger thinks and says.

    But when a powerful Senator speaks, they might just listen.

    So I guess I am confused by the distinction drawn.

    It seems like the issue here is against the Senator, not against what he is saying (since what he is saying conforms with the views of VFTW).

  34. Gary,

    The timeframes do show an increase in cost using the site you linked to. 2002 = $264.56, 2012 = $283.97. That’s from the exact same column you’re citing in the post. And again, you need to weight these, that’s simply proper math.

  35. @Andrew sounds strange to offer your political opinions on what legislation you want to see, and criticize me for offering political opinions?

  36. @kokonutz – I suggested earlier than a $200 change fee could be counterproductive for the airlines, Schumer says a $200 fee hurts families and makes travel unaffordable but had no similar beef with a $150 change fee and does nothing legislatively about the huge taxes imposed on travel (similar levels to tobacco!). He isn’t concerned about the 7.5% federal excise tax, which applies to al families not just those changing their plans.

    And you actually hit in your post the big difference. I’m not a US Senator talking to the press with the implicit threat of legislation.

  37. @Steve, and 2000 was $317 and 2001 was $286, both higher than 2012. 2002 was the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and a recession. There’s variance in fares for a variety of reasons, but overall fares are down. And travel is up precisely BECAUSE fares are down, your ‘weighting’ will conflate exogenous and endogenous factors and tell you what? The snarkiness isn’t constructive.

  38. Gary,

    Again, you relate your lack of understanding of math so I’ll help you (with hypothetical numbers to prove a point):

    I’ll assume the people in each year move forward to the next one.

    1979 – 100 people pay $400 per ticket
    2002 – 500 people pay $275 per ticket
    2012 – 1,000 people pay $300 per ticket

    Increase (decrease) in cost = 400 * 25 = 10000
    100 * -100 = (10000)

    Overall change = 0. By actually applying math, you can account for what the change in price is to the actual flying public. This what weighting means.

    And please do not talk about endogenous/exogenous factors. I saw no mention of that in your original post so to use that to disregard a proper analysis now is hardly justified.

    Anyway, this was a fun exercise and my original point was that your simplistic math does not prove anything and it is strange to attack someone as a buffoon when you yourself didn’t understand some basic concepts.

  39. @Steve the total revenue earned from all tickets by all airlines is irrelevant to whether air travel is more affordable (the point Schumer was making). I fail to understand why your comments are so rude, especially when your analysis is not at all on point.

  40. I propose that for public health reasons change fees greater than $10 should not be allowed as they endanger public health by encouraging (some would say forcing) ill people to travel in small sealed tubes where they exchange their viruses and bacteria with many others.

    If the latest bird flus or SARs like diseases become a pandemic and large numbers die, I am certain those looking back at the situation will feel ridicuous change fees played a role in causing sick people to travel and spread the diseases further and faster

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