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United updates its schedule change policy for the third time in light of coronavirus outbreak

The Points Guy logo The Points Guy 3/13/2020 Zach Griff
a large passenger jet sitting on top of a tarmac at an airport: Zach Griff © Provided by The Points Guy Zach Griff
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Last weekend, United made some customer-unfriendly changes to its schedule change policy.

In light of the novel coronavirus, all major U.S. airlines have been forced to cancel hundreds of flights. In a likely effort to conserve cash and limit how many refunds it distributed, United decided to change the refund guidelines for schedule changes.

Before the update, if your flight time was changed by two or more hours, you’d be entitled to a full refund. On Saturday, March 7, a new policy went into effect that stated your flight departure or arrival time would need to change by 25 or more hours in order to qualify for a refund. You could, however, receive a United travel credit to apply to a new itinerary with the airline. But the change for a refund rankled many customers.

a airplane that is on a runway at an airport: Zach Griff © The Points Guy Zach Griff

Unsurprisingly, United received lots of pushback with regards to this updated policy. Customers who had ticketed flights for certain dates and times were basically told to deal with the changes (or receive a travel credit), unless they were severe enough to cause a 25-hour disruption. And worse, these updates were applied retroactively to all passengers — regardless of when they ticketed their flights.

The travel community was up in arms about this change, and United quickly amended the updated policy with language stating that only a “significant” change would qualify for a refund.

a screenshot of a social media post: Zach Griff © The Points Guy Zach Griff

Well, we’ve got some good news to share. United has listened to the backlash and in its third iteration is (somewhat) rolling back these changes. Though this policy isn’t nearly as flexible as it was originally, it’s still a marked improvement compared to the 25-hour rule.

The thrice-updated policy is as follows, confirmed by a United spokeswoman:

“Any customer whose travel is disrupted by more than 6 hours because of our schedule changes will be eligible for a refund. The relatively small percentage of customers who are delayed by more than 2 hours, but less than 6 hours, are eligible to cancel and retain the value of their ticket for future use, and in the case of special circumstances can work with our customer contact center to find a resolution.”

It’s unclear what the exact “special” circumstances are or what type of accommodations can be made through the call center.

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See the latest coronavirus travel guidance from the CDC

Currently, United states that over 90% of customers with schedule changes are automatically rebooked on flights that leave within two hours of the originally ticketed departure time. However, with all the changes to the carrier’s schedule, that figure seems certain to decrease.

The schedule change policy joins United’s relaxed change fee waiver for all flights through April 30. This applies to all tickets regardless of when they were purchased or the origin or destination.

a blue chair in a room: Zach Griff © The Points Guy Zach Griff

United’s schedule change policy is now the strictest of all the major U.S. airlines. American’s parameters permits a full refund in case a flight is changed by 61 minutes or more. Delta is just a bit more restrictive, with a 90-minute threshold. But neither gets close to United’s new six-hour rule.

Either way, UA’s updated schedule change policy isn’t nearly as bad as it was earlier this week. It’s clear that United’s goal here is to conserve cash. My fingers are crossed that it rolls back once the coronavirus outbreak ends (soon).

RELATED VIDEO: Can you cancel your flight without paying a penalty over coronavirus fears? (provided by WFMY-TV Greensboro)

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