United updates its schedule change policy for the fourth time in light of coronavirus outbreak

Mar 15, 2020

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United’s made a whopping four customer-unfriendly updates to its schedule change policy in just one week.

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, all major U.S. airlines have been forced to cancel hundreds of flights. In a likely effort to conserve cash and limit how many refunds it distributed, United decided to change the refund guidelines for schedule changes.

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Before the update, if your flight time was changed by two or more hours, you’d be entitled to a full refund. On Saturday, March 7, a new policy went into effect that stated your flight departure or arrival time would need to change by 25 or more hours in order to qualify for a refund. You could, however, receive a United travel credit to apply to a new itinerary with the airline. But the change for a refund rankled many customers.

Unsurprisingly, United received lots of pushback with regards to this updated policy. Customers who had ticketed flights for certain dates and times were basically told to deal with the changes (or receive a travel credit), unless they were severe enough to cause a 25-hour disruption. And worse, these updates were applied retroactively to all passengers — regardless of when they ticketed their flights.

The travel community was up in arms about this change, and United quickly amended the updated policy with language stating that only a “significant” change would qualify for a refund.

On Thursday, March 12, United responded to the backlash and (somewhat) rolled back the changes with a third iteration to the schedule change policy. This time, you’d receive a full refund for flights changed by more than six hours. If your flight didn’t qualify for a refund, you could call the contact center to “find a resolution in case of special circumstances.”

And on Saturday, March 14, United changed the policy for the fourth time — and made it much harder to get a refund. Now, the latest policy is that if your international travel is changed by six or more hours, you’ll receive a travel credit to use within a year of your original ticket purchase date. If you want a refund, you need to wait until that full year elapses, and only then can you request a refund.

The updated schedule change policy joins United’s relaxed change fee waiver for all flights through April 30. This applies to all tickets regardless of when they were purchased or the origin or destination.

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Now, United’s schedule change policy is by far the strictest of all the major U.S. airlines. American’s parameters permits a full refund in case a flight is changed by 61 minutes or more. Delta is just a bit more restrictive, with a 90-minute threshold. But neither gets close to United’s new six-hour rule (and one-year waiting period for a refund).

Though UA states that this new policy is about “helping customers,” it’s clear that real intention is to conserve cash. My fingers are crossed that it rolls back once the coronavirus outbreak ends (soon).

All photos by the author.

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