United's back to issuing refunds for 2-hour schedule changes
Well, we've come full circle here. "Back in the day" — that is to say, before the pandemic — United Airlines would allow customers to request a full refund, to their original form of payment, for any flights impacted by a schedule change of two hours or more. Then, as the mass cancellations began, "Flyer Friendly" went out the window, with United changing that requirement to 25 hours — yes, more than a full day later.
Following significant backlash, the carrier finally relented, adopting a 6-hour policy. According to United, you could only collect a refund if your flight was canceled and the new itinerary had you departing or arriving six or more hours after the flight you had originally booked. Any less, and you'd be stuck with an Electronic Travel Certificate (ETC), if you chose not to fly.
That led to lawsuits, and an "unprecedented" spike in complaints to the Department of Transportation (DOT) — which responded in kind with a stern warning, insisting that “carriers have a long-standing obligation to provide a prompt refund to a ticketed passenger when the carrier cancels the passenger’s flight or makes a significant change in the flight schedule and the passenger chooses not to accept the alternative offered by the carrier.”
Long story short, as of today, June 6, we'll be back where we started, with the original two-hour refund policy that had been in effect before this mess. As a United spokesperson explained:
We are continually looking at ways to better support our customers, and as part of that effort, we’ve updated our guidelines for handling refunds when our flight schedule changes. We have always provided refunds for refundable tickets, and these updated guidelines will offer additional flexibility to our customers requesting refunds for non-refundable tickets when flight changes occur. If our customers would like to check on their refund eligibility, they can go to united.com/refunds to submit a request.
There's more good news to report, too. This change is retroactive, so if you previously were left with no choice but to accept an ETC, you can now request a refund to your original form of payment, assuming your itinerary had been impacted by a change of two hours or more, and you haven't already redeemed your voucher.
The Department of Transportation is clearly pleased to see United correct its refunds policy, as well. According to a DOT spokesperson:
The Secretary of Transportation has called for increased flexibility by air carriers for passengers impacted by flight changes and for full refunds when flights are canceled, especially during the public health emergency. This policy change is an improvement towards the goal of better protecting passengers.
As for how long it'll take to actually get your refund? Officially, the airline is quoting longer-than-normal processing times — up to 21 business days, as of this writing. In my experience, "refunds" to Electronic Travel Certificates take considerably less time, however, so if you're planning to book another flight soon, that may still be your best bet.