United discontinues practice of allowing free changes for 'fuller' flights
Early during the pandemic, United Airlines added an option for flyers booked on "fuller" flights to make a change to their trip, including moving the date slightly — or even choosing an alternate departure or arrival airport nearby — completely free of charge.
In general, this option became available when the check-in window opened "on flights that [were] expected to be closer to full capacity," or at the gate when more than 70% of passengers had checked in. American Airlines introduced a similar program as well.
The practice continued for more than a year. For a United trip I flew this May, for example, United sent me a text at check-in, saying: "We do expect this to be a fuller flight. To see if other flight options are available and change with no fee, go to [United's website]."
This week, I received a similar "fuller flight" text message, but instead of offering a free change, the airline reminded me of its general COVID-19 practices, saying "We've got you covered by putting your health and safety at the forefront of your experience. Learn more about United CleanPlus and the latest science on safe travel: united.com/cleanplus."
So, what prompted the change? With so many Americans traveling once again, most flights likely meet the "fuller" criteria — customers only had an option to change if there was a flight available with many empty seats, a rare occasion these days.
A United spokesperson confirmed the shift, but noted that the airline now waives most change fees, so if you're looking to move to a less-full flight, you don't have to pay an extra fee. The big difference here is that fare differences are no longer waived — if your new flight is more expensive, you'll have to fork over some cash to cover the difference.