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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