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United has been going through some big changes lately, and we’re due for one more next month. Back in June, United announced that it would be shifting all its transcontinental flights to Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO) from New York JFK to Newark (EWR) starting October 25, 2015.
That means a whopping 32 transcontinental flights each day with the airline’s flagship p.s. Premium Service, including lie-flat BusinessFirst seats, will begin flying each day to/from Newark. To do so, the airline plans to pull additional internationally configured 757s off European routes and put those on domestic service instead. However, that won’t be without its challenges as well, since the international 757s have just 16 BusinessFirst seats compared to 28 on the domestic p.s. fleet — and they won’t have Gogo Wi-Fi. It also means that elites wanting to upgrade on the new Newark flights will have to burn through their Regional Premier Upgrades in order to get a bump from economy to business class.
While the move makes a lot of sense for United itself — seeing as the airline is investing $2 billion to improve its hub at Newark, where it operates hundreds of connecting and nonstop flights to destinations across the globe — it’s bound to cause some headaches for transcon passengers.
When United announced the service change, it notified passengers that they would automatically be rebooked on flights to/from Newark, but also noted that if the new flights did not work with the passengers’ scheduling, that they could call the airline to make changes.
What You Can Do
Yesterday, we spoke to one such passenger, Michael Spelfogel, who told us about his experience changing upcoming United transcontinental flights based on his needs. Here’s what happened to him, and his advice to other flyers.
Michael had five tickets affected by the new routing. He originally booked them in economy, and used Regional Premier Upgrades to score some of them to BusinessFirst. Because he wanted to fly into and out of JFK, though, Michael decided to try getting United to change his flights … and he successfully got the airline to book him in American Airlines A321T transcontinental first class.
Call customer service: “Call United at 800-864-8331,” he says, “but do not submit a complaint to customer care online. I tried three times to no avail.” Instead, he says, “Ask to speak to a supervisor,” and tell them you want to fly into or out of New York JFK.
Avoid the runaround: Michael says,“The supervisor will advise you that you can either switch to a nonstop flight to Newark; change to a one-stop itinerary to LaGuardia via the airline’s other hubs in Chicago, Denver or Houston; or get a full refund.” However, he says not to let the rep convince you those are your only choices. “There’s an additional option that the representative will likely neglect to mention. United can endorse your ticket onto a different airline in accordance with a specific rule in its contract of carriage.”
Michael cites the clause Rule 24, Part C, Number 2: United at its discretion can “reroute Passengers over the lines of one or more carriers in an equivalent class of service when a Change in Schedule results in the cancellation of all UA service between two cities.”
That means you can ask United to rebook you on one of the other airlines that plan to fill in the gaps left by United at JFK. Note the “at its discretion” clause in the above terms. That’s what we like to call a loophole, but it’s probably one the airline is unlikely to invoke.
Equivalent class of service: The challenge now becomes getting United to book you into the same or an equivalent class of service. “If you booked an economy ticket and used a United RPU like I did,” says Michael, “the airline will be even more reluctant to endorse your ticket to a different airline in the equivalent class. However, after a second attempt, I was able to get my tickets reissued in American first class on the transcontinental A321.”
Presumably, you can aim for Delta One as well if you prefer. Michael did have some tickets that were in economy reissued over to American also in economy, but some of those were rebooked in full-fare Y, meaning he should have a better shot of upgrading those if he wants.
Timing flexibility: While United should rebook you on flights that leave around the same time as your original routing, Michael notes that, “If you prefer a different flight time, they can put you on other flights on the airline you request within 24 hours of the original flight time.” So that’s a nice little bonus if you were thinking of changing your flight times anyway.
The caveats: Michael does have some warnings for fellow flyers, though. “One small hiccup,” he says, “is that United, not your new carrier, will handle any changes or cancellations to the new ticket.” So that adds a layer of complication in case things do change.
He also suggests that you “get confirmation numbers from United for the new airline and check to make sure they made the changes you requested.” Never hurts to double check.
While the switchover to Newark was bound to be a headache, at least it’s good to know that flyers have some options. Michael did say it took him three long calls and a fair amount of time to change his flights to new itineraries on American. But in his case, it paid off with full-fare economy and first-class tickets on the new carrier, and the opportunity to earn a veritable mileage bonanza thanks to class-of-service mileage bonuses. That’s an even better benefit if you were thinking of switching your business from United, which has devalued its mileage program and added spending requirements for elite status in recent years. If you’re willing to put in the time and effort, at least you know that changes can be made so you can keep your flights into/out of New York JFK.
Have you tried changing your United flights because of the shift to Newark? Share your experiences in the comments below!
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