United’s New Refund Policy Is An “Unfair and Deceptive Practice’ Per DOT Guidance

Airlines are required to provide a refund when they cancel a flight, or make a significant change to their schedule. Federal law does not define what either of these two things mean, so airlines can create their own definition as long as it’s reasonable. United has adopted an unreasonable interpretation,

  • A flight is only ‘cancelled’ when the airline cannot accommodate a passenger on another flight, regardless of how inconvenient. If United used to operate 8 flights a day between two cities, and now only flies twice a day, they claim they haven’t actually cancelled six flights – or even any flights – because they still fly passengers on the route.

  • A significant schedule change is when a customer is moved to another flight six or more hours away from the time that they booked.

The problem for United, according to guidance from the Department of Transportation, is that even if the definition of cancellation were reasonable (it is not) this policy is new and cannot be made to apply to tickets that were purchased prior to the policy going into effect.

The Department interprets the statutory prohibition against unfair or deceptive practices to cover actions by airlines and ticket agents applying changes retroactively to their refund policies that affect consumers negatively. The refund policy in place at the time the passenger purchased the ticket is the policy that is applicable to that ticket. The Aviation Enforcement Office would consider the denial of refunds in contravention of the policies that were in effect at the time of the ticket purchase to be an unfair and deceptive practice.

Through March 6 United’s policy was to honor refunds whenever there was a schedule change of 2 hours or more. Its newspeak definition of what constitutes a cancellation dates to late April. So if you purchased a ticket before the new policy, and United refuses a refund, you should complain to DOT and file a chargeback with your credit card company.

Complaints about airlines are way up in the U.S. DOT reports that in an average month they receive 1500 complaints. Now, with 90% fewer people traveling, complaints have skyrocketed, “in March 2020 and April 2020, more than 25,000 air travel service complaints and inquiries were filed.”

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. […] United’s CEO says they’re making a bet on quality and service not price they haven’t yet brought back the product that shows this but somewhere along the line there was a Scott Kirby conversion. Maybe not a total conversion (I remain skeptical that the man as responsible as anyone for destroying legacy American now believes in passenger experience over spreadsheet data), but it’s a remarkably consistent theme at least ever since the airline stole customer money at the start of the pandemic. […]


  1. In the end, what the last paragraph means is that, for all intents and purposes, filing a complaint with DOT, while the right thing to do in many of these cases, really has no teeth.


  2. United’s flight refunds are a joke. I cancelled a flight to Ireland on 5/1/2020 after they changed my arrival to almost 24 hours later. (Our event was postponed, so we weren’t going anyway.) As of today, I still haven’t even received a cancellation email nor a refund. By comparison, I cancelled a Delta flight yesterday and had a cancellation email within a minute. I’ve checked in with United via Facebook messaging twice, and they see that the refund request has been submitted but that refund claims are taking 21-30 days to process. I wasn’t a United fan before I booked this and it has only reaffirmed why I prefer Delta!

  3. United after 2 requests for refund has on the 3rd request refunded our cancelled flight on March 30th from Auckland. I got a call from the Corporate Manager of Customer Relations explaining why the agent did not refund the 1st 2 times (we were offered a flight from Sydney home instead and had to get ourselves to Sydney – NOPE) as it looked like we just cancelled our Sydney flights and they were still flying from Sydney. Personally I thought it just was a cover-up for making us wait 6 weeks. I had already disputed with credit are company and he said they will not fight it. It was nice to get a personal call as when we were trying to change our J class tickets the agents were quite inappropriate (I also had written about our experience) and he acknowledged that they were not following procedures for re-accommodating customers on a different flight. UAL agents wanted $7000 on top of what we had already paid for J class to move us to a new flight from Sydney for the cancelled Auckland one. That did not include airfare to SYD from AKL either. We flew home Qantas instead!

  4. @Gary I am supposed to fly UA from SAV – IAD -LGA on May 14. The “Flight Status” shows “On-Schedule”. However, if I try a new booking, SAV to LGA I get a “No flights available”. There are currently plenty of seats available on both legs, so why are they not taking new reservations?

    Are they waiting until the last moment to cancel so as to avoid refunding as many people as possible?

  5. This Second Enforcement Notice should be enough to get the charges reversed with your bank. If not it’s all you should need to prevail in small claims court.

    Since some states allow as much as $5,000 additional award above and beyond the amount claimed in the lawsuit as damages going to court would be well worth it.

  6. @ Corgimama17 – UA is slow walking refunds. It took me 4 weeks to process a refund for me.

  7. @brpo I filed a DOT complain about LATAM in April and got LATAM to refund my money in May. So I’d say is worth a shot to try.

  8. If you want to get their attention you only need two other creditors owed $1500 and you can file an involuntary bankruptcy petition against United in federal bankruptcy court.

    I suggest you also short the stock or buy put options because the stock is going to drop very fast when the trading AI software reads “United” and “bankruptcy.”

    Check with your securities lawyer but I’ve been told by one that trading on this isn’t insider trading.
    I think she’s wrong, but what do I know about securities law?

    What? You don’t have a team of securities lawyers? I thought everyone did.

  9. All United is doing is:

    Hoping you forget or give up or accept a voucher.

    Holding onto your cash for an extra 4-6 weeks. Or longer.

    My belief is…if they can charge your credit card in a second (the text alert comes literally one second after hitting enter on my keyboard), they should be able to process a refund in the same amount of time. Or a day or two. the old story of “the credit will appear on your credit card statement in the next one to 2 billing cycles” is the same bogus treatment of YOUR MONEY. They do it because they think they can get away with it.

  10. Also, be aware that United is charging a $125 fee for redepositing miles to your account if the cancellation Is less than 30 days prior to the flight date. Seems crazy if you don’t know whether or not you need to fly prior to that time.

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