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Travel Harsh new United policy change irks fliers amid coronavirus fears

22:15  09 march  2020
22:15  09 march  2020 Source:   sfgate.com

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"This should be illegal.  United is now saying if you buy a ticket but United changes it, as long as they can get you there within 25 hours of the original time it is no longer refundable.  That’s disgraceful. Contract law should shoot that down," said frequent traveler S.H. in an email over the weekend.

What's he talking about? Well, over the weekend, United quietly made a big change to its refund policy in light of the cuts it has been forced to make due to plummeting demand amid coronavirus fears.

Previously, if United changed, canceled or rescheduled a flight and it was unable to move passengers to another flight to their final destination within two hours of the original flight, it would offer them a full refund.

The new policy enacted over the weekend states that United will now only offer a credit for a future flight (no refund) if it can get passengers to their final destination within 2-25 hours of the originally scheduled arrival time. It will only offer a refund if it can't find another flight within  the new 25 hour window.

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So what does that mean in real terms? Let's say you are holding a reservation to fly from San Francisco to New York-Newark departing at 8 a.m. next Wednesday. Then United makes a change to its schedule, eliminating that 8 a.m. flight. It switches you to an 11 p.m. redeye flight 15 hours later instead. If you choose not to take that flight, United will no longer give you your money back... it will only offer you a credit to use on a future flight within 15 months.

A United spokesperson told SFGATE: "We’ve made reductions to our international and domestic schedules and know many customers are impacted as a result.  Our goal is to rebook as many people as possible without interruption and right now, more than 90 percent of impacted customers are being put on a flight that is within 2 hours of their original booking. For any rebooking that goes beyond two hours, those customers can change for free or cancel altogether, and use the value of that ticket toward future travel up to 15 months from their original ticket issue date."

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United put schedule changes into effect this weekend after announcing last week it would cut its flying by up to 20 percent internationally and 11 percent domestically. Many other non-U.S. carriers have made similar cuts, but so far United is the only U.S. carrier to announce broad flight reductions.

Since it appears United imposed this onerous new refund rule as a result of coronavirus-related cuts, I asked if it would be rescinded when the crisis passes, but the spokesperson stated that she would not speculate on that.

You can read United's refund policy here.

News of United's new policy broke over the weekend, setting the travel blogosphere ablaze with comments about what appears to be an ill-timed move.

Brian Sumers, a writer for travel industry news website Skift, who broke the news on Twitter wrote: "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."

Matthew Klint, who writes the popular Live and Let's Fly blog and tracks United closely was blunt: "That is just wrong. It is disgusting. We don’t contract for a particular aircraft or a particular seat number, but we certainly contract to travel on a particular date and time. This schedule change gives United broad power to disrupt your travel plans without recourse. United plans to apply this policy retroactively to previously booked tickets…an even shadier move."

No coronavirus waiver? Some airlines have you more covered than others

  No coronavirus waiver? Some airlines have you more covered than others As coronavirus spreads, and fears about contracting the disease grow, airlines are increasingly giving passengers a chance to re-tool their travel plans by waiving change fees or allowing their customers to cancel even non-refundable tickets. In many cases though, these opportunities come with some major restrictions. Most of the airlines that have issued waivers have …In many cases though, these opportunities come with some major restrictions. Most of the airlines that have issued waivers have only done so for specific city pairs, with further limitations on changes based on when the ticket was purchased and when travel is set to take place.

Over at The Cranky Flier, editor Brett Snyder was a bit more conciliatory, stating, "United created a model and realized money was going to fly out the door with this schedule change. The airline then had to try to figure out how to prevent bloodshed in this very uncertain time. Is this solution as good for customers as the old policy? No, definitely not. But the reality is that it is a mostly fair solution considering the circumstances."

Read all recent TravelSkills posts here

Chris McGinnis is SFGATE's senior travel correspondent. You can reach him via email or follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Don't miss a shred of important travel news by signing up for his FREE biweekly email updates!

SFGATE participates in various affiliate marketing programs, which means we may get paid commissions on editorially chosen products purchased through our links to retailer sites.

No coronavirus waiver? Some airlines have you more covered than others .
As coronavirus spreads, and fears about contracting the disease grow, airlines are increasingly giving passengers a chance to re-tool their travel plans by waiving change fees or allowing their customers to cancel even non-refundable tickets. In many cases though, these opportunities come with some major restrictions. Most of the airlines that have issued waivers have …In many cases though, these opportunities come with some major restrictions. Most of the airlines that have issued waivers have only done so for specific city pairs, with further limitations on changes based on when the ticket was purchased and when travel is set to take place.

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