United’s latest schedule change policy: no refund for 12 months

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This news broke over the weekend, but in catching up on what I missed yesterday I thought it was worth reporting this for those who like me had mostly been away from the news for a day or two: United has made its fourth or fifth change this month to its schedule change policy: If your international flight is changed by more than six hours because of schedule changes resulting from government restrictions, you will get a United credit that is valid for one year. If after 12 months have passed you have not used the credit, you can get a refund. This applies retroactively to tickets purchased well before the COVID-19 outbreak.

This new policy is nuts, especially given that many customers purchased their ticket under the previous policy, which provided a refund when a schedule change caused a disruption of 2 hours or more. Gary Leff at View from the Wing suggests that those affected by this policy change might consider filing a chargeback with their credit card issuer if United refuses to give a refund and I am inclined to agree with him.

I should note that I’m probably more sympathetic to the airlines than many travelers right now. That’s easy for me given that I don’t have any flights booked right now, but the fact of the matter is that I do sympathize that there are a lot of ordinary people who are or are going to be out of work, taking unpaid leave, etc. I can appreciate the difficult and unexpected situation in which airlines find themselves at the moment.

But this policy change is horrible. Keeping customer money tied up for a year before giving it back seems wrong. I understand that United would prefer to be in the business of flying than in the business of canceling flights and they would like to preserve cash and maintain their business, but it seems wrong to hang on to money that was exchanged for a specific purpose (a flight from A to B on date XYZ) if they can’t provide the service you purchased. That may not be the airline’s fault, but neither should customer money be tied up for a year because of it. Given the total economic uncertainty in which we are currently living, it is further problematic to expect customers to leave their money with United as a no-interest loan for a year. While I imagine this too shall pass and the legacy airlines will make it out of this, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to give an airline a loan today.

I can’t imagine that this schedule change policy will last. They have already changed the policy multiple times over the past week. I’d bet that this won’t be the last time.

If you’re holding tickets for international travel that is weeks or months away, I’d recommend waiting it out and seeing what happens — no sense in compounding your frustration with hours on the phone waiting to be told something that will likely change with the wind. If your travel dates become imminent and United intends to stick with this policy, filing a chargeback seems like a reasonable next course of action.

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