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United Again Updates Rules About Schedule Changes—and Hits a New Low

Update: After a few iterations of policy changes in one week, United’s current policy on schedule changes is that if it can’t get you to your original destination within six hours of the original schedule, it will refund your fare—but with a catch. The refund is limited to a credit voucher good for a year rather than cash, and you can get cash only if you don’t use that voucher within a full year. The blogosphere is speculating that refusing a cash refund for a full year is illegal, but nobody has any great suggestions about how to avoid the problem.

The below original story was published on March 10, 2020.

United just changed its rules on flight schedule changes to hit a new low in a marketplace already full of lows. Until now, airlines implementing schedule changes of two hours or more usually allow you to opt for a refund. But United just changed that two-hour schedule change limit to a whopping 25 hours. Meaning: If you buy an afternoon flight for scheduling purposes, and that flight gets pushed forward or back as much as a day, you’re left with little recourse.

Here it is from in their own words, with our emphasis added:

“When a schedule change happens, we try our best to provide you with options that minimize the disruption to your travel plans. In cases where the new flight options don’t work for you and one of the following scenarios applies, we may be able to offer you a refund:

  • The scheduled departure or arrival time changes by twenty-five hours or more.
  • The change causes issues with the overall length of the trip, such as making the connection time too short or significantly longer than it was originally.
  • If we are unable to accommodate you in the same cabin as purchased – refunded either the full price or the difference in fare.

If you’re not satisfied with your new itinerary and one of the above scenarios applies, please don’t accept the itinerary in Manage Reservations. Instead, you can request a refund online.”

How well would that work for you? I know it wouldn’t work for many travelers. One such traveler I know has a ticket on United in early April arriving in Newark at 5:33 pm to catch a red-eye on another line leaving at 9:40, which doesn’t count as a “connection” on United.

The above should allow plenty of connecting time, but if United reschedules the departure to a flight arriving Newark as late as 24 hours later, it wouldn’t refund the ticket.

This outrage won’t bother United’s prime business-traveler customers who typically use flexible tickets. Instead, it’s aimed squarely at average travelers on nonrefundable tickets.

So far, none of United’s competitors has said they’ll do anything similar. But (as I’ve often noted) nothing catches on faster than a bad idea in the airline industry. You can expect a howl from the consumer advocates, and maybe even from congress—but today’s DOT has proven unwilling to hear consumer issues like this one.

More from SmarterTravel:

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

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