If you need to book a flight over the phone — whether a revenue or award ticket — you’ll probably be asked to pay a fee of $25 or more. Fees are usually waived for elite frequent flyers. Average customers can avoid most fees by booking most revenue tickets online. Award tickets are also becoming easier to book online, though they aren’t quite as simple.
Unfortunately it is still very common to run into situations that require talking to a human. Maybe you want a complex itinerary with a stopover and the online search engine can’t price it correctly. Or the flights just aren’t displayed. Many airlines still do not show award availability for all their partners online.
Usually I’ve done all the research in advance through ExpertFlyer or other tools. I don’t want to talk to an agent. I’m already upset that I have to call an agent, waiting on hold for 15 minutes or more. Why should I pay for something I don’t want to do?
The simple answer is because it costs money to pay a human to answer that phone.
I think most of us would agree it is fair to charge for booking revenue tickets on the phone. Nearly all tickets can be booked online. If you’re trying to do something complicated and need an agent, well, you brought it on yourself. And agents aren’t cheap, either. An airline has to worry about salaries, benefits, training, turnover, facilities, computer terminals, telecommunications systems, etc.
But award tickets are a different situation. I don’t know of any carrier that displays award space for all of its partners online. That means you need to call to book. British Airways is pretty good about handling this and is known to waive the phone booking fee for awards on Alaska Airlines. I always recommend you try this approach if you find yourself forced to call it.
United Airlines actually does share information about most of its partners online and has a pretty good system for booking complicated award tickets with stopovers. But it got a lot of flak when it removed Singapore Airlines award space from its online search engines. You now have to call to request information on availability and then book it. And they were clear in announcing the change that they would not waive the phone booking fee.
Is this fair of United? As I said, agents cost money, but United removed our only option to avoid the fee.
Before answering this, consider US Airways. They charge a fee to book every award. Whether you book it on the phone or not, there is an “award processing fee” of $25 to $50. Book it over the phone and it costs an additional $30 to $40. Some of these fees are waived for elite members, but not all tiers.
I realize these fees are separate, though in a sense they reflect the same thing: the cost of processing an award ticket. It is less and less common for your miles to cover the entire cost of fulfilling an award. All carriers impose taxes and fees. Many carriers impose fuel surcharges. A processing fee is an extension of this trend. Even if you book an award online there may still be people in the back office taking charge of that reservation and making sure the appropriate alliance partners are contacted so each segment is ticketed properly.
Everyone would like it if booking fees were included in the cost of an award. But a la carte service fees are the new reality of air travel. Breaking out fees for things like checked baggage helps to keep fares low, and breaking out fees for booking an award — whether any award or just those booked by phone — helps to reduce (though not eliminate) the inflation of award charts.
I don’t think these booking fees can possibly cover the entire cost of providing the service. $25 seems low for 30 to 60 minutes of manpower plus the entire infrastructure supporting the reservations team. I’m sure that carriers would prefer to make it possible to book as many awards online as possible. Sometimes they just don’t have the IT systems to support every partner. I imagine in the specific case of United and Singapore where a partner has been removed there may be more going on that we know. Requiring customers to call in every time they want an award on Singapore Airlines doesn’t help Jeff Smisek toward his goal of cutting $2 billion in costs.
So at the end of the day, are phone booking fees ideal? Certainly not. But I would not go as far as saying they are unfair — as long as the carrier is making an effort toward letting us book online and avoid those fees in the future.