I was going to write today about the details of United’s big schedule change, but I’m pushing that off. Instead, I’ve decided that there’s more to write around United’s bad schedule change policy revision that I covered yesterday. Originally, I decided that it wasn’t egregious enough to earn the Cranky Jackass award. After seeing it in action, I have changed my mind. Without additional changes, this policy crosses a line. Fortunately, Delta and American aren’t able to follow this same path.
What has changed since my post yesterday? A couple things.
The big move remains the same. You used to be able to get a refund if your schedule changed by more than 2 hours on a United ticket. Now to get a refund, the schedule has to change by at least 25 hours. The problem resides in the details.
The Written Policy Doesn’t Reflect What I Was Told
If you look at United’s travel agent policy for schedule changes, you will see the switch from 2 to 25 hours. (It also says the policy is “temporary.”) But what you don’t see is the one thing that prevented me from giving the airline the award yesterday.
United’s spokesperson told me before yesterday’s post “For any rebooking that goes beyond 2 hours, those customers can change for free or cancel altogether, and use the value of that ticket toward future travel up to 15 months from their original ticket issue date.” That is nowhere in this written policy or the consumer-facing one.
While it may be allowed, if it’s not in writing, I don’t trust it.
That’s just a part of the issue. Now that I’ve seen dozens of schedule changes for Cranky Concierge clients, I can see the fatal flaws in this policy. This is actually something that has long been a problem of United’s schedule change policy, but the inability to get a refund amplifies it greatly.
The Problem With Other Airlines
It’s easy to think of this as a United schedule change policy, but that’s not entirely the case. The reality is that the policy is for any ticket issued on United ticket stock even if other airlines are involved. Because of that, it gets complicated quickly.
United’s schedule change policy says that if there is a change to a United flight, someone can only be rebooked on a United or United Express operated flight. If there is a schedule change to a flight operated by another airline, then the only replacement for that flight can be something operated by the same airline in the same city pair. If that isn’t possible, only a United-operated flight can be used.
This policy is downright stupid in an era of joint ventures, and it has caused our clients problems before. Let’s say Lufthansa cancels a traveler’s flight from Milan to Frankfurt and then that person was supposed to continue on United over the Atlantic. You can’t switch to, for example, a SWISS flight to Zurich and then continue on United over the Atlantic even though SWISS and Lufthansa are owned by the same company and operate in the same joint venture with United.
Even worse, United is alone in this restriction.
American’s policy may be complex, but it will let you rebook on American or an American codeshare operated by another airline for any schedule change. There are inventory restrictions if the change is under an hour, but go over an hour and things get much more flexible. In cases where that won’t work, there is an option to use other airlines on their own codes. Delta appears to have something similar in allowing Delta codeshare flights, but it leaves its policy more vague on purpose to give more flexibility.
Preventing someone from being able to get a refund while sticking to these overly tight rules is not fair. How about a real world example to show what I mean?
An Example of Why This is Terrible
One of the itineraries that got caught up in this over the weekend was a return from Ljubljana in Slovenia for a client. The travelers were going via Frankfurt and Houston to their final destination with the first leg on Lufthansa and the rest on United. The last flight home on United was canceled and there were no more that night, so United put them via Chicago instead.
Here’s where problems arise. Though United moved them to the flight via Chicago, it failed to realize that this would be a missed connection upon arrival in Frankfurt from Ljubljana. There is a great connection available over Denver, but that would require flying a United codeshare operated by Lufthansa over the water. United’s policy doesn’t allow that even though American and Delta would with their respective partners.
In fact, there is now no option that arrives that day that will also fit under United’s schedule change policy unless the travelers are willing to downgrade to fly in coach instead of premium economy. That’s not going to happen. Sure enough, however, they could get back to the US, spend the night, and then fly to Omaha in the morning. This is less than 25 hours of a delay, so United will no longer give them a refund.
The only option is to put this into a credit, but then what? Buying a comparable new ticket is now currently thousands of dollars more than when it was first purchased. If they got a refund, they could fly another airline for much less, but that is no longer allowed. I was wrong yesterday. This is not a fair solution.
Now, I’m guessing that we could try calling the sales support line and maybe get a waiver to allow a change to the Lufthansa-operated flight option via Denver, though that hasn’t proven to be the case with previous sticky situations like this one. That, however, is irrelevant. We are experts here, and we have access to sales support lines that not every regular traveler has. Most travelers are going to feel helpless, angry, and unfairly punished.
No, Delta and American Won’t Be Following
The natural thought after seeing what United has done is to assume others will follow. After all, this industry has a terrible lemming mentality, so it wouldn’t be a surprise. But fear not… neither American nor Delta can do this for existing bookings, and it all comes down to the contract of carriage.
As I wrote yesterday, United’s contract of carriage protections on schedule changes are pretty weak.
C. Schedule Change- When a Passenger’s Ticketed flight is affected because of a Schedule Change that modifies the original departure and/or arrival time by 30 minutes or more, UA will, at its election, arrange one of the following:
1. Provided that the dates of departure and arrival must be within 7 days of the originally scheduled dates of departure and arrival, respectively, transport the Passenger on its own flights, subject to availability, to the Destination, next Stopover point, or transfer point shown on its portion of the Ticket, without Stopover in the same class of service, at no additional cost to the Passenger;
2. When a Schedule Change results in the cancellation of all UA service between two cities, at UA’s sole discretion, UA may reroute Passengers over the lines of one or more carriers in an equivalent class of service;
3. Advise the Passenger that the value of his or her Ticket may be applied toward future travel on United within one year from the date of issue without a change or reissue fee; or
4. If the Passenger is not transported as provided in C) 1) or 2) above and does not choose to apply the value of his or her Ticket toward future travel as provided in C) 3) above, the Passenger will be eligible for a refund upon request. See Rule 27 A).
Basically, United gets to pick which of the four options it will offer to customers if there’s a schedule change of more than 30 minutes, and you don’t get a say.
American, on the other hand, has the most liberal refund policy of the three, and it’s inscribed in the conditions of carriage.
We don’t refund cash for non-refundable tickets. However, if you cancel your trip before departure, you can use the value of your ticket toward future travel on American. You’ll need to rebook and travel within 1 year and pay a change fee plus any difference in fare.
We will refund a non-refundable ticket (or the value of the unused segment of your trip) to the original form of payment if:
-You cancel within 24 hours of booking (and booked at least 2 days before departure).
-We cancel your flight
-We make a schedule change that results in a change of 61 minutes or more.
-A passenger or their travel companion dies.*
-Military orders require you to cancel your trip.*
*Supporting paperwork is required.
American has hard-coded the rule that if your flight changes by more than an hour, you’ll get your money back. Delta has similar, though again more vague, wording, and the threshold in its contract of carriage is higher than American’s:
A. Delta’s Liability in the Event of Schedule Changes, Delays and Flight Cancellations
If there is a flight cancellation, diversion, delay of greater than 90 minutes, or that will cause a passenger to miss connections, Delta will (at passenger’s request) cancel the remaining ticket and refund the unused portion of the ticket and unused ancillary fees in the original form of payment in accordance with Rule 22,…
The language is loose here, but I believe a schedule change counts as a “flight cancellation, diversion, delay.” The current policy matches that as well.
In other words, if Delta and American want to change, it would only be for new bookings. Since they have a better reaccommodation policy, this would concern me less anyway. But United… well, United is just different.
In the end, United has fallen into the trap that has plagued many airlines in the past. It rushed out a policy to conserve cash without actually thinking through the customer impact. That is inexcusable since we are so early in this downturn. More time could have been taken to think this through. Since that didn’t happen, United has now earned this Cranky Jackass award. I’m just sorry I didn’t evaluate this properly earlier.