United Says They’ll Deny You Boarding If They Think You’ve Been Exposed to COVID, Or Refuse Testing

Zach Griff reports on a change United has made to its Contract of Carriage, the adhesion terms that apply to your purchase of a ticket.

According to United’s contract with its customers (bolding mine),

Passengers who are incapable of completing a flight safely, without requiring extraordinary medical assistance during the flight, and Passengers who appear to have symptoms of or have a communicable disease (or there is reason to believe there was exposure to a communicable disease) or other condition that could pose a direct threat to the health or safety of themselves or others on the flight, or who refuse a medical screening for such disease or condition, whether suspected or actual.

The airline added that they can deny you boarding if they have reason to believe you’ve been exposed to the novel coronavirus. In practice this decision will be exercised in their sole judgment.

Moreover they can deny you boarding if they merely suspect you have coronavirus, or if they want you to obtain a test showing you do not have the virus and you decline. What will lead them to suspect someone may have the ‘rona? It could be temperature checks. It could be data shared via an app or the government in the future. It could be information about known exposures, including on a prior flight.

  • These terms make sense. Anyone believed a risk to spread an infectious disease to other passengers shouldn’t be allowed into a metal tube.

  • The airline should be able to set terms for whom they’ll do business with.

  • The mere ‘suspicion’ element here raises some concern about how individual employees will exercise judgment on a given flight, or what indications may be used in the future.

  • False positives are one issue with testing that aren’t as much of a problem at a societal level as they are in an individual case where the wrong result is produced

United can’t impose rule changes retroactively on tickets already purchased. Though they may do so in the moment and any redress is likely only to come after the fact.

Consider this part of the new normal that we’re figuring out – we do not know what is going to happen in practice but United is updating its rules to allow them to take action based on what sort of testing or screening occurs.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. This makes me want to spend my $3k in flight credits and get right back in the air!

  2. “These terms make sense. Anyone believed a risk to spread an infectious disease to other passengers shouldn’t be allowed into a metal tube.”

    Their terms refer to “…Passengers who appear to have symptoms of or have a communicable disease…”

    OK so here are two common COVID-19 symptoms:

    – Cough
    – Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

    Cough is also the symptom of…allergies; post-nasal drip from sinus congestion; the common cold; nervous ticks; lingering cough many weeks after any number of common respiratory ailments; COPD

    Shortness of breath is also the symptom of many of the above, as well as asthma.

    So when an overly paranoid and power-trippy GA or FA – who is NOT a doctor or nurse – decides a passenger who is coughing from spring allergies or having a bad day with their asthma has “symptoms of COVID-19” that’s just fine when the passenger is denied boarding? This will not go well.

  3. @Ryan

    Plus one.

    I and my spouse suffer from all the health issues you mentioned. Meaning I will continue to avoid United. With American and all its negativity and Delta cancelling service in my city, I guess if I can’t drive there,…. we won’t be going.

  4. This is ridiculous. Expect arbitrary enforcement a la post 9/11. Combined with their many customer unfriendly moves as of late, I will be sending my business elsewhere.

  5. Domestic? Wouldn’t the 4th amendment come into play here?
    You’re a passenger who lives in LA, and need to get home near Newark.
    Denied boarding due to suspicion of a virus? (not confirmed case)
    If that doesn’t encourage people to lie, I’m not sure what does.

    Better yet, you’re flying home from LA via Houston. Before the plane lands, the airline finds out you’ve been exposed by another passenger who just found out they’ve tested positive for COVID-19.
    If the airline strands you, who’s responsible?
    If they decide to allow you on the flight, do others have a right to bring suit against the airline for exposure?

  6. How about denying boarding to anyone that appears to have a co-morbidity issue. Take out the obese ones first!
    Replace senior discounts, with a Senior surcharge.

  7. @DanG, the 4th Amendment does not apply to the actions of a private party, in this case UA, absent some very specific sets of facts that don’t apply here (e.g. where a baggage handler at SEA was been a paid informant for the DEA, goes snooping into a suspicious bag on his own, and finds cocaine. Real case. Was deemed a search without a warrant by the DEA’s “agent” and suppressed.)

  8. It is time to enforce rules for passengers of size. I don’t want to share 4 inches of my seat or put up the arm rest. This is both a health and safety issue. Delta really needs to look at this

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