United’s Economy Plus Policy When You Change Your Flight is Entirely Unfair

If you buy an upgrade into an extra legroom seat, you probably expect that fee to be non-refundable if you decide not to travel. That tends to fit with how the airlines sell tickets, so it shouldn’t be a surprise. But what about when you change your flight? How do airlines handle those seat fees? While American and Delta both have fair policies, United’s recent change is not. And you should know about it before you buy an Economy Plus upgrade.

United Earns Money on Float

We had a client who booked flights from Seattle to the east coast a few months before travel, and both passengers had purchased Economy Plus seating. Unfortunately, they had to make a change to those flights, so they paid the change fee and the fare difference and they were good to go. They just had to get their Economy Plus seats moved over to the new flight as well.

When I called the agency help desk, they explained that when you cancel the old flights in the system, the refund would process automatically. Then you just have to buy the new seats on the new flights. We’d encountered this before, and while it’s not the ideal solution, it’s not a problem. But we waited over a month. No refund came.

I looked around through the terms and conditions on United’s site and it’s far from clear what should happen. It does say that “Any customer-requested changes to any portion of an itinerary will result in loss of Economy Plus seats for the modified segments,” but it doesn’t say if “loss” means you just lose that seat or you also lose your money. It does say you get a refund if you’re downgraded, but that wasn’t the case here. Very murky.

I called back to the agency help desk and two agents in a row told me that they had been called into a meeting on this at the end of last year. The policy was now that refunds would not be processed until the original flight departed so they could know for sure that the person had not used the seat. This is outrageous.

This means that United makes you pay for the new seats and then holds on to your original payment as well, at least until the old flights take off. If you booked far in advance, that could be a long time that United gets to keep your money. Could this be yet another in a long line of technical problems that causes United to work this way? That’s my guess. Though there is a much lesser possibility that it’s just a dastardly effort to sit on your money and earn a little interest on the float.

This seems like such a bad policy, that I couldn’t really believe it was true. Naturally, I chose to investigate further. I reached out to the PR team last week and finally got the definitive answer. Regarding refunds, “our process is to automatically refund it after we operate the flight.” Wow.

I wondered if this was just a United thing. Did other airlines have the same problem?

I spoke with the PR team at Delta and was told the airline will “assist customers with transferring their purchase to an alternate flight should they need to make a change to an existing flight.” So that’s a much easier process that doesn’t require double payments. If the price is different, it seems less clear. Though it appears Delta would lean toward simply doing what’s right and help the customer. (I’m guessing if someone bought a $19 Economy Comfort seat from LA to San Francisco and then tried to change that into an LA to Sydney flight, then it would be a different story.) And if there is no seat available on the new flight, then it’s non-refundable so I assume you’d lose it.

At American, the PR folks tell me that if you make a change and the cost of the new seat is the same as the old one, they’ll just move you over to Main Cabin Extra on the new flight so no charge and refund occurs. If it’s not available or if it’s a different amount for the seat, then it’s just refunded at the time you make the change and you can repurchase. American appears to be the only one that considers Main Cabin Extra refundable for any reason, at least for now.

Refunds in general have been a challenge lately with so much bad winter weather. We have others in queue, trying to get their money back after things went wrong. But this particular issue isn’t related to weather. It’s policy, whether forced by technology or greed, and it’s a bad one. United should really revert to the way it used to be handled. I’m guessing that required a lot of manual intervention, however, so that’s why we see this policy we have today.

[Original meeting photo via Shutterstock]

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36 Comments on "United’s Economy Plus Policy When You Change Your Flight is Entirely Unfair"

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Gary Leff
Guest
They’re certainly not doing it for the float at current interest rates. See, for instance, http://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/data-chart-center/interest-rates/Pages/TextView.aspx?data=yield My guess would be they had problems of one kind or another with how they had been doing it before, maybe refunds weren’t automatically proicessing, so they built a hack into their system tied to flight departure to check for and process refunds. Just like they don’t automatically and continuously process upgrade lists within 24 hours of flight, they’ve hacked the system to trigger checking the upgrade list when passengers check in. It’s got to be IT. Unless they’re just dumb and like people… Read more »
BMK
Guest

ON a recent JFK-DCA flight I had to change it and had already bought the economy comfort for $9 .. with no issues at all, agent transferred that over to new reservation.

Retired
Guest

Well if it was JFK-DCA it wasn’t United, right – USAir or Delta ?

BMK
Guest

Yes, DL, meant to include that .. only AA/DL fly that route,

David
Guest

I agree that the delayed refund is not great, but there are worse things with air travel than this. You’re getting more worked up over this than it’s worth…

Oliver
Guest

The pax now needs to track this refund for potentially many on this. What happens if UA cancels the flight for weather or mechanical reasons? Will their system automatically refund or will the pax then have to fight for it?

Oliver
Guest

Many on this -> many months (thanks iPad autocorrect)

Matt Weber
Guest
I think this is an issue that someone needs to review both the contract for carriage(Tariffs), and the DOT regulations. It would not be the first time that an airline had policies that were contrary either the contract for carriage, and/or current DOT regulations. Cranky used to work for an airline that had that problem. When in doubt, the filed tariff is in fact the contractual language (see section 221.1) and the carriers must publish the tariffs, observe them, and MUST keep them open for Public Inspection. In the early 1980’s DOT cracked down quite hard on refund policies because… Read more »
Dan
Guest
What you posted about American’s policy is not exactly true. I have taken several flights with American over the last few months and had to change most reservations. Main Cabin Extra purchases always got immediately cancelled and I ALWAYS had to re-purchase Main Cabin Extra again on the new flights. It didn’t matter if I called and Agent to make the change or made the change online, no transfer of Main Cabin Extra was ever possible (unless it was a same day change). Now for the refund… I am still waiting for two of these Main Cabin Extra refunds, a… Read more »
David SF eastbay
Member

You mean in this 21st century airlines can’t do basic math functions for refunding the difference or collecting the balance on something as simple sounding as this?

Does sound like a run around to hold on to your money or to have people think they forfeit the funds so the airlines keeps it.

Diego rodriguez
Guest

I’ve had nothing but positive experiences with economy plus seats on American and united. On united, I’ve been asked to switch from economy plus to exit rows on an outbound flight, which resulted in an immediate refund for all fees for economy plus(inbound and outbound). However, on the inbound flight, I still had my economy plus seat.

If American has no seats left but main cabin extra, I just don’t select a seat, and upon check in I was assigned a main cabin extra seat for free.

I may have been just extremely lucky.

Danyay
Member

Unfortunately, this is how Early Bird on Southwest works as well, in my experience.

james
Guest
Are there any instances or examples of a refund flat out NOT being processed? (Or taking advantage of a customer simply forgetting about being proactive and following up?) Assuming the process is automated (but lengthy) most likely not, but it still puts the onus on the customer in being proactive and needing to follow up. Given that my Amazon returns are credited back in less than two days, or a restaurant overcharge can be rectified within a week, this is quite annoying. Example: I paid United $137 for an E+ upgrade in late January. A day later I rerouted due… Read more »
USBT-2014
Guest

Yup there are cases of this. I’ve heard from a few people that booked E+ and then there was an equipment change to an aircraft without E+. Quite a lot of the ex-CO 738s and 739s still haven’t been reconfigured.

In those cases I used the unofficial fleet website maintained by FlyerTalkers to track the tail and arm the pax with the information to claim a refund.

Chris
Guest
I have changed flights twice now on Delta where I have already bought economy plus seating and their policy isn’t ideal either. It obviously isn’t refundable and they do let you transfer it but you can only transfer it if your new flight is the same city pair (or so I have been told). The flight I took issue with was when I had to change a flight last minute and my layover changed from ATL to DTW but with the same destination (DCA). The seats for the first leg cost the same but because they were not between the… Read more »
A
Guest

On Delta I don’t have to pay for Econ Comfort with my status but I do recall seeing a pop-up appearing on the seat selection saying something about forfeit of fees for changing a seat I’ve already paid for. Maybe that’s on the same flight, not changed flights. Either way, it sounds like UA is refunding the money, it’s just a question of how long they hold it. Well, there are lots of businesses that fall into that camp.

Dan
Guest
@Cranky: I’ll throw more fuel on the UA fire: I had a pair of award tickets booked with UA miles, traveling on partner flights. My travel companion wasn’t able to travel (and I knew this in advance). I wanted to take a buddy of mine instead. I called up UA, figured I could split the PNR, get the miles back, and rebook my friend. Sounds simple, right? Well, UA wouldn’t split the record, and told me to call back after travel completed, and THEN I would get the miles back. Three people told me this. When I returned, I had… Read more »
garyedel
Member

I once booked economy plus on UA then they changed the aircraft to a CRJ without E-Plus. They did not give me a refund for the seat upgrade. Thats why this cranky carcas has not flown UA again. Companies should realize that it’s the little things customers notice and remember.

frankgaron
Member
This type of nonsense is because United has always been a garbage airline, IMHO. From the surly FA on my Jax-IAD flight to the absolutely filthy 747 on my SYD-SFO flight to them not holding the last DEN-ABQ flight of the evening for 5 more minutes so all the passengers running their butts off trying to connect from the late PHL-DEN flight (when they KNEW and had assured the connecting passengers they’d holf it), the list goes on. CO, on the other hand, was an absolute PLEASURE to fly during the glory years of Gordon Bethune at the helm. I… Read more »
frankgaron
Member

PS: I happily let 15k FF miles expire on UA some years ago, just so I wouldn’t ever have to fly on them again. Little did I know…

David
Guest
People – just think for a moment how much cash we’re talking about when buying the seat upgrade. I know in an ideal world everything is perfect, but the world is not perfect. As long as you get the (rather modest) amount of cash back eventually will it really kill you to wait ? The big 3 airlines have lost a ton in annual losses since 2001 and their IT has been starved of investment. For years people got too used to paying peanuts while oil cost a fortune – now that consolidation of airlines has occurred, correct handling of… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member

It’ll be interesting to see now that airlines are starting to be profitable how much IT will become a differentiator. Airlines now have money to spend on capital improvements. (Improving software is often called capitalized development, because it is.)

Tangental to that, I wonder how much the GDSes will be forked back to the days of DeltaMatic, SAAbre (owned by AA) and whatever United’s system was back in they day.

jaybru
Member
I think we can say UA has a history of refund issues. See DOT’s Order 2013-8-27, served Aug. 30, 2013, where DOT, following a review at UA’s Chicago HQS, August 2012, where UA was found to have a “…failure to timely process consumers’ refund requests.” Ordered to “cease and desist” and fined $350,000. Not sure these specific types of refunds were involved, but let’s just say, stuff happens. Amazing how UA, like others I’m sure, can manage to handle, route, and re-route baggage correctly in so many God-awful situations, yet so often can’t properly handle even the minutest dollar situations… Read more »
JoEllen
Guest

Another reason certainly to NOT purchase an annual E+ seating priced at over $400……try to get that back (pro-rated or otherwise). Why do people do this ?…..just purchase as you go along !

JoEllen
Guest

Another reason not to even consider annual E+ enrollment ($400+). How long will any of that (pro-rated) take to get back ?

Matt
Guest
They have been doing this for at least two years, I have had multiple segments, mostly international where I had purchased economy plus, only to later upgrade to Business, and waiting for the refund does not work, but i finally, in order to get a refund, had to send in a copy of the payment receipt for economy plus, and go throughs bells & whistles to get the money back. United has a weird way of treating all of its customers and it certainly does not withhold the pain for loyal customers or infrequent travellers alike. Personally, I think United… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member

FWIW US just rebooked me on AA from my normal cruddy seats into Main Cabin Extra..

nora
Guest
I bought my tickets to Calgary from Houston way in advance–Sept 2013 for a July 2014 flight. I purchased economy plus for $69 each way. However, it was obvious that there was no economy plus seating on my aircraft, as confirmed by the hostess. She pointed out there was no sign over my seat saying “plus.” She also gave me the aircraft number, noting it would be easy for customer service to look up that aircraft and see it doesn’t offer economy plus. Still the agent in Calgary wanted to argue with me…..she said, “you were in seat 10A which… Read more »
Mardi
Guest

What poor customer service! Was the refund received in the end?
I’m going through a simular struggle for a booking in May that I’ve needed to cancel.

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