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]


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

  1. Gary Leff says:

    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 managed to scam them and they decided it was better to build this convoluted system than lose ~ $500.

    IT hacks seem more likely.

  2. BMK says:

    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.

  3. David says:

    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 says:

      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?

  4. Matt Weber says:

    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 a number of carriers were to be polite, being very abusive. I can remember one transaction where it took 6 months to get the refund issued.

    Tariffs vary a little from carrier to carrier, but perhaps Cranky can enlighten us exactly what types of refunds these seems to be a problem with. Voluntary refunds are a different beast than involuntary refunds, but with all of the weather issues over the past few months, I suspect at least some of the issues are involuntary refunds, and DOT and the tariffs generally have a surprisingly hard pro-consumer line on those.

    The tariffs and DOT regulations can be difficult to find and read, but there are few activities that have paid me more on an hourly basis than reading those documents. Upon request, DOT regulations require a carrier to produce the tariffs for inspection upon demand virtually anywhere the airline sells tickets or cargo services. DOT regulations also prohibit the carrier from even asking your name if you want to see the tariffs, and if requested, must also provide assistance in reviewing the tariffs by someone with knowledge of the tariffs (CFR221.172). In the event that the tariffs are in electronic format, the carrier is only partially excused from these requirement. In case of electronic only tariffs, the carrier is required by DOT regulation to provide a hard copy of the tariffs at NO COST, essentially overnight. (CFR 221.177,)

    • CF says:

      Matt Weber – I’m not convinced that this falls under that part of the contracts of carriage because it’s not ticket revenue. I’m not quite sure what covers this.

  5. Dan says:

    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 month after the flights took place. American says the refund is pending but it hasn’t completely processed yet….

    • CF says:

      Dan – All I can tell you is that this is the official policy from American. If it’s not being processed that way, then that’s a different issue.

  6. David SF eastbay says:

    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.

  7. Diego rodriguez says:

    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.

  8. Dan says:

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

    • CF says:

      Dan – My experience with EarlyBird at Southwest is that if you make a change, it carries with you unless you’re within a couple days of travel. You lose it then. If you cancel, you lose it. Of course, that’s a lot less money.

  9. james says:

    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 to weather, and paid another $137 for the alternate flight. The first has yet to be refunded. How long do I need to wait?

    Second, consider the travelers that have difficulty affording it: Some have low limit credit cards, or used their debit card to pay (not a good idea, but that’s how it is for some). Why should their funds be held that length of time, or why should I need to a make a monthly reconciliation “to-do” list with United (including non credited miles)?

    • CF says:

      james – I think that’s happening a lot. Much of this is supposed to be automated but sometimes (a lot) it fails. So unless the traveler submits it, it probably won’t happen.

    • USBT-2014 says:

      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.

  10. Chris says:

    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 same city pair the Delta agent refused to move the seat over for me. Same was true for the second leg, because the flight was not the same city pair they couldn’t move the seat over, and I believe DTW>DCA was cheaper than ATL>DCA but I could be wrong.

    While United’s policy is annoying I would prefer to know that I was getting the money back at some point vs Delta where I paid for the seat twice.

  11. A says:

    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.

  12. Dan says:

    @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 to call twice, but did get the miles back.

    I had the miles to cover my buddy’s ticket while the others were sitting in limbo, but had I not, I’d be pissed.

  13. Gary says:

    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.

  14. Frank Garon says:

    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 knew it was all going to end when Jeff Smisek took over – he single-handedly destroyed the best airline in the USA by merging it with the air industry’s equivalent of Yugo…

    And yes, I’ve flown CO before Bethune. And it was horrible. Kind of like United is today, some 20 plus years later.

  15. Frank Garon says:

    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…

  16. David says:

    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 seat upgrade refunds when customers change their flight can go on the ‘to do’ list…

    It all sounds like a bunch of people from flyertalk moaning about how terrible it is that a 1 houf flight doesn’give enough FF miles for a free trip across the ocean ! :-)

    • 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.

    • CF says:

      David – I’m not sure how you define a modest amount of cash, but on longer flights, you can be above $300 roundtrip per person. This isn’t a tiny amount of money to a lot of people.

  17. JayB says:

    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 where a customer is due a teeny, weeny re-application of fees or a refund. I’ll bet that in these baggage re-route situations, there is little or no set of tariff or other rules, yet the people get it done. Get involved with money, such as refunds or seeing that customers are made sure their fees are properly used for services, and the behemoth corporate enterprise loses its mind to admin nonsense.

  18. JoEllen says:

    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 !

  19. JoEllen says:

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

  20. Matt says:

    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 needs serious restructuring that cannot be achieved with the current leadership,

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

  22. nora says:

    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 is economy plus.” I said, “yes, 10A was SUPPOSED to be economy plus, but it wasn’t.” The only extra leg room on my aircraft was in the exit row and bulk head. I finally got a refund for $69 thanks to a supervisor who used to work for Continental (miss them!).
    Anticipating the same issue on my return flight I spoke to the agent about it at check in. She assured me that I was really getting economy plus this time. She was wrong. Same thing all over again. This time the first class attendant assured me I had extra leg room–even challenged me to go sit down in the back and see! (It was a full flight!). Still I took out my head phone cable and measured the distance between my seat and the seat in front of me and then walked back to the back and did the same. No difference. I managed to get the aircraft number AGAIN #269. Attendants in the back confirmed that the aircraft I originally was booked on was changed and that this flight did NOT have EcoPlus. I headed for customer service upon landing only to be told that aircraft #269 had a 1″ difference in ecoplus! Really? Who in their right mind would pay $69 for 1″? I don’t believe there was even a 1″ difference. I did not get a refund and now have written customer service for a refund. I hope for a miracle. United should be apologizing and happily refunding money charged for something they didn’t even offer. They should have some way of flagging aircrafts that don’t offer EcoPlus that would not even allow a customer to buy it. If they change aircrafts from the time the ticket was purchased and the day of the actual flights and there is no EcoPlus on the new aircraft, they should immediately credit the customer their money. United. Worst airline. I could write a book about all the things that have happened to me with United. The only thing they are good at is NOT refunding money when they should.

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