Last weekend United quietly rolled out a change. Instead of offering customers a refund when they changed the schedule a customer bought by 2 hours or more, they would no longer provide refunds unless the schedule change was at least 25 hours. At first I thought this was a typo, adding a five after the 2.
This meant that United could move someone to a flight the day before or the day after and customers would be stuck. What’s more this applied to previously purchased tickets even when United had published the 2 hour policy on its website. (United said that their contract of carriage allowed them to make the change, but that just means their contract conflicted with published policy that customers relied upon.)
There was a huge backlash against the move to conserve cash. What United did was probably illegal. But even if they lost DOT complaints they’d be holding the money while those proceeded and most customers wouldn’t push that far.
Initially United adjusted the policy to say that they’d consider refunds for customers with significant schedule changes on a case-by-case basis. That required calling, and in some cases waiting hours on hold, only to find out whether or not United would offer the refund. That imposed a cost to get the refund along with an uncertainty that may have made even trying to ask not worthwhile.
This didn’t stop the criticism. Now United has backed off a bit further, imposing a six hour rule.
When schedule changes occur, more than 90 percent of our customers are being automatically re-booked on a flight that leaves within two hours of their originally scheduled flight. Any customer whose travel is disrupted by more than 6 hours because of our schedule changes will be eligible for a refund. The relatively small percentage of customers who are delayed by 2 to 6 hours are eligible to cancel and retain the value of their ticket for future use. In the case of special circumstances, customers can work with the United Contact Centers to find a resolution.
This is still:
- A worse policy than competitors, making United a less desirable airline to buy tickets on
- A change in policy for already-issued tickets.
The way I’m viewing this is as United focused entirely on the short term at the expense of customers. In the long run they will need their customers but appear to be acting on the old Keynes maxim about the long run.