Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

American Airlines just made a shocking gesture toward business travelers

It's a couple of clicks of a computer keyboard, for which airlines routinely charge $200. Now, American Airlines suddenly takes a different stance on certain fees. The cornonavirus changes business attitudes in a hurry.

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Unusually thoughtful.

Screenshot by ZDNet

The other day, a senior tech executive told me he's ready to fly again.

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But only, he said, to escape the potential chaos that may accompany November's election.

I understand, though, that some in tech are now viewing flying (slightly) more favorably -- especially when it comes to re-establishing personal relationships in far-off places.

But with unknowns still peppering the business world, executives want to be able to change and cancel plans at a moment's notice. Airlines don't always make that so easy. Or, at least, so cheap. (Please don't think all tech executives fly business class.)

Which is why I was a touch taken aback to see American Airlines make an unusually surprising gesture to encourage corporate customers to fly: It's allowing free name changes on certain tickets.

I was partly taken aback because American hasn't always been the airline one associates with thoughtful customer service. It's happily filling the middle seats on its planes (when it can), despite scientists suggesting this increases the chances of catching COVID-19.

Moreover, American has often tended to enjoy levying fees that incite demented feelings among passengers.

One of those is change fees. Want to change a flight? That'll be $200 for a couple of clicks on a computer keyboard. Indeed, American's CEO Doug Parker once said he'd rather end the concept of non-refundable fares than give up on the delights of such easy $200 contributions.

Yet, now that the coronavirus is altering human consciousness, here is Parker's airline suddenly telling corporate customers that it's doing something strikingly reasonable.

The ability to change names on a ticket is another area in which airlines sometimes appall customers. A little spelling mistake on a ticket can occasionally lead to a vast rigmarole -- and a fee -- merely to correct a typo. Moreover, the mere thought of someone trying to pass a ticket on to a family member or a friend is considered sacrilege.

Now, American says name changes will be allowed "on applicable tickets for corporate customers, Business Extra accounts, and On Business accounts."

It makes sense that companies might suddenly have emergencies and need to send a different executive on a flight. It makes sense that airlines should make that as easy as possible. It's merely a surprise that an airline has decided to be so considerate.

I asked American about its thought process. A spokeswoman told me: "To provide flexibility in light of concerns around COVID-19, American Airlines introduced free name changes for contracted corporate travelers in April and expanded that flexibility to Business Extra Customers in May. This week, we announced the extension of these name changes for tickets purchased by September 30 for travel through the end of this year."

Is this a peculiar example of an airline listening to customers? It is.

American's spokeswoman explained: "Many companies may experience staffing updates or changes to location demands that would necessitate a change in traveler name, origin or destination for business travel to resume. We heard these concerns from our corporate customers, and introduced this solution in anticipation that these changes may occur in high volumes for these groups in light of the pandemic."

In the wider world, one reason name changes aren't allowed is to stop the unscrupulous tech types -- or, depending on your perspective, merely enterprising ones -- from going online when fares are cheap, buying up whole blocks of tickets and then selling them to who knows whom for a profit at some later juncture.

Instead, airlines do it for themselves by raising ticket prices to silly amounts for those booking at the last minute. Well, they used to be able to do that.

Does this new COVID-inspired attitude mean, then, that American will extend the free name-change joy to everyone?

"We do not have plans to extend free name changes to travelers who do not fit in the above categories," said the spokeswoman, "as their anticipated changes in ticket needs will not be at the same scale."

Ah. Of course. Scale. It couldn't be anything else, could it?

The coronavirus has forced many business to change the way they operate. In a year or two's time, it'll be pulsating to see which of these changes stick and which are discarded as soon as the economy has recovered.

Let's live to dream, though. Wouldn't it be wonderful if there were no airline fees at all?