Delta ( DAL) charges less, $50 for a same-day flight change, and also waives the fee for premium fliers if the new flight is within three hours of the original flight. Alaska ( ALK) has a same-day change fee of $25, waived for premium passengers who are confirmed in first class.

Southwest ( LUV) does not charge a change fee, but to change at the gate requires purchasing a new ticket at whatever the ticket cost is at the time. Spokesman Brad Hawkins said that Internet fares, available up to an hour before departure, are sometimes priced lower than previously ticketed fares.

Henry Harteveldt, analyst for travel consultant Hudson Crossing, said that in the case of my New York-Charlotte flight, "the earlier flight took off with an empty seat, so the airline didn't get any revenue for it and you didn't feel warm and fuzzy towards the airline. The airline could have said 'if we put you on an earlier departure, that frees up a seat later on, so if there are delays later, we have one less person to worry about.'"

On the other hand, Harteveldt said, "When we agree to travel on certain flights, we trade off flexibility," especially when buying a discounted ticket. "Airlines have a legitimate interest in protecting themselves from abuses of the system," he said. "People game the system. (Some) would buy the cheaper ticket and purposely miss that flight, or get to the airport early and stand by."

For instance, a person could buy a discounted ticket on a late night flight and then show up for the earlier, more desirable flight. That does not seem like the wisest travel strategy, but one airline spokesperson, who asked not to be named, said: "It would be an ineffective travel strategy, but we see it all -- we see it all."

Harteveldt said the best policy is probably fees below $75, which seems excessive to many. "Some airlines have such a fixed approach toward these fees," he said. "It would be helpful to arrive at a win-win situation for the customer."

At the same time, if you were in the airport and you knew storms were approaching and you had the chance to pay $75 to get out an hour earlier, wouldn't you pay it?

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Ted Reed

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