In the past United Airlines had a policy that they would grant a full refund, even on non-refundable fares, to your original form of payment if they made an involuntary schedule change of more than 2 hours. When I was a Premier 1K member with them I sometimes got a refund even on schedule changes of 30 minutes. These involuntary changes are a result of general shifts in operational demand and supply. For example, a new route might require re-balancing crew schedules, and as a result the airline knows weeks in advance that your flight’s departure time will be rescheduled.
Now that rule has been changed to permit refunds only if your new departure time is off by more than 25 hours. In other words, United doesn’t even have to depart on the same day, and you’re still stuck with your ticket and no recourse.
Brian Sumers reported the news on Twitter this evening. He’s usually got good scoops on United, but even I was a little dubious of the change. It’s that radical.
How much does @united want to conserve cash? Before Saturday, after a schedule change of more than two hours, United happily would refund you. The new policy is 25 hours. Spokeswoman said: "We do everything we can to rebook customers in as timely a manner as possible." pic.twitter.com/BgEQ1PsyHA
— Brian Sumers (@BrianSumers) March 7, 2020
One thing you need to know about buying an airline ticket is that you aren’t promised to fly on the same flight you booked. You’re entering into an agreement with the carrier, bound by that carrier’s Contract of Carriage, to get from A to B. If you’re lucky, the majority of people will get the same seat, the same plane, the same departure time they requested. But we all know delays happen, planes are swapped, etc. The CoC gives the airline a lot of leeway.
This particular policy is not strictly related to the recent change and cancellation fee waivers that airlines have been issuing related to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Those policies largely apply to new tickets and, as Sriram noted, are an attempt to drum up demand in these desperate times when people are afraid to fly. They aren’t about helping people who booked months ago and now have second thoughts about traveling.
United finds itself in a tough spot. Fewer people are flying. Maybe some employees will fall ill. It probably can’t keep up its original schedule if it starts grounding planes. That will make involuntary schedule changes more likely, with a cascading effect of allowing other passengers to request a refund. Maybe the recent fee waivers don’t apply to you because you have an older ticket, but the involuntary schedule change refund policy certainly does.
By re-writing the rules, United is making it almost impossible for customers to get their money back. They can rebook you on a new flight up to 25 hours apart from your original reservation and you’re stuck with it. That’s definitely not the kind of move I’d expect from the “friendly skies.”