4 important United Airlines changes travelers may not know

by Janice Hough on April 11, 2012

The United-Continental merger has officially been completed for over a month. Officially, the new airline is saying things are going smoothly with a few “issues.” But, go to the United.com website and you’ll see the following, “Notice regarding Contact Center call volumes.” Guess all is not totally copacetic.

“Our Contact Centers are currently experiencing extraordinarily high call volumes. In some cases hold times exceed an hour, and you may be prompted to try your call at another time. We are working to improve this service level and apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.”

The phone issues should eventually improve, eventually. (I’m not holding my breath.) However, some other things have changed permanently.

Here are four changes regarding tickets and reservations, particularly when booked through a travel agent or multi-airline reservation system.

United explains that they are “harmonizing” the differences between their old policies and Continental policies. Translation — “More beneficial to our bottom line, less beneficial to the consumer.”

1. Changed refund rules. United used to have a nice rule that allowed a passenger who changed a nonrefundable ticket to another ticket with a lower fare to take that penalty out of the original fare value.

So, for example, someone with a $500 ticket who was changing to a $400 ticket would only effectively pay $50, with $100 of the $150 change fee covered by the original ticket payment.

Now, the penalty must be paid separately. Even if the original nonrefundable fare was much higher. United says the difference from the old fare can be put on a voucher for future travel, but it’s a complicated process.

2. Refunds via travel agents. Travel agents will now refund tickets due to schedule changes or flight problems, instead of requesting a refund through the airline.

This change, while it is more work for travel agents, could be a mixed blessing for travelers who will see refunds more quickly. But there may be problems for travel agents and their clients later.

When United refunded tickets they stayed refunded. If an agent refunds a ticket there is always the chance that United denies the refund after the fact and may bill the ticket again.

The agency can fight these bills, called “debit memos,” but the airline has the final say, which means the cost ultimately may have to be paid by someone other than the airline, either the client or the travel agent.

3. Changed 24-hour rule. Previously, travel agents who booked a reservation on a given date had until the next day to issue a ticket. Now the 24 hour ticketing rule is really 24 hours.

So as United stated to agents, “for example, a ticket with a 24-hour ticketing time limit booked at 1 p.m. CDT needs to be ticketed by 1 p.m. CDT the next day.” Presumably the same applies to tickets with a 72-hour rule as well.

(This rule is new enough that I’m not sure if United will just start inhibiting GDS reservation systems from ticketing too late, or whether they will bill agencies later.)

4. Flight-change disclosures. Within 24 hours of flight departure United will no longer send messages for upgrades, waitlists and canceled/delayed flights via reservation systems (This means travel agents’ GDS and systems like Orbitz and Travelocity).

Such information will be available on United.com and in theory via “Easy Update,” United’s text-phone-email alert system, if a traveler has signed up for such alerts.

(From my own experience, these messages are more than a bit hit-or-miss. For example, the last delay message I received from United two weeks ago was 20 minutes after departure time, stating the flight would leave 22 minutes late; in reality, it was about 10 minutes after the flight door was closed and phones turned off. I got the message upon landing.)

In general, it’s always a good idea to check on flights before leaving for the airport, but I have to wonder how many people will find out that United is no longer sending messages to their travel agent or travel arranger for the first time when they show up and discover there’s a problem.

This merger is still a work in progress. However, since these “new” United policies were already Continental policies they probably have a good chance of sticking. Stay tuned.

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  • Anonymous

    good article

  • Anonymous

    Given a choice, better avoid them.

  • Sononiss

    United is doing it’s very best to alienate customers. I try to avoid them as much as possible.

  • BobChi

    I don’t know if it’s that or gross incompetence, but I agree. Do not call United unless you’ve been meaning to read War and Peace so you’ll have something to do while listening to that annoying hold music forever.

  • Gordonmccann

    the more I look at these not-consumer-friendly changes the more I LUV Southwest Air

  • Janice hough

    I love how they say if it can wait please try your call later. Wait until when, 2013?

  • William Hamilton

    One other change that I heard about but have not yet used is United’s upgrade/co-pay policy. My understanding is that now the passenger requesting an upgrade with miles plus the co-pay fee must pay upfront, not when checking in for the flight. Is this actually the case? If so, United will be holding a huge pile of money belonging to customers and I bet refunds will be slow to process.

  • neal1

    I am seeing clients not receiving same status from the original mileage plus.  I have a VIP client who is the president of one of the largest charity organizations worldwide, and had United premiere status.  Now, the new system doesn’t recognize his status and throws him in the back.  I called to speak with the correct dept. but they only hang up when answering and are completetly back logged.  Major headache.

  • SgFm

    Generally I have very little to do with United. I do however have more than 150,000 miles from my combined accounts in their frequent flyer program, and that of the old Continental’s. My timing in terms of using some of my miles could not have been worse last month, I booked an award ticket ~ 24 hours before United and Continental merged their GDS systems. I then had to cancel that ticket, and did so before the required 24 hours, to avoid a charge of $150 to return the miles to my account. Since then, it has been hell to deal with the “new” United. Calling them- hold times have been an hour. I have been charged $150 on a credit card that I never used when I made the award booking to pay for the taxes, which they acknowledge I should not have been charged, and have no explanation for how they could have charged the credit card that they did, and although I was promised a prompt refund five days ago, it has not appeared yet. Only upside, the taxes charged have been refunded and the miles did go right back into my account, once I called, and then had waited an hour to speak with a CSR.

  • Janicehough

     William, this is correct. And I probably booked about $2 million in tickets on United last year,  I think of  ALL the waitlists for upgrades internationally I had less than 10 people clear their waitlist who were lower than 1k status.  Plus the co-pays are not insignificant, up to $1200 a ticket, so yes, they will be holding a lot of money.

  • Bunny

    Also annoying, though far less than the items listed here, is that the dates displayed on the reservation search pages are no longer MM/DD/YYYY but are DD/MM/YYYY. This subtle and unannounced change made me squint a bit at the screen.  

  • Anonymous

    I was a SFO based premier (now AA plat — switched my business over).  Upgraded 6/6 SFO-IAD.  My secret was a)booking 757 and 777 flights, and b) checking in *exactly* 24 hours before departure.  Just keep hitting refresh until easyCheckin opens up.

  • Anonymous

    Strange that unless a celeb or politician gets royaly screwed by the UA merger mess, the mainstream media has been relatively quiet suggesting that everthing’s peachy and we’re all just imaging things.

  • Anonymous

    But i think these air line changes would definitely effects the passengers..But i think its good that United Airlines has taking the help of social media to introduce these changes to their customers.

  • Ronglo

    I have been trying to get a refund for a United ticket booked through a travel agent since mid February. After a month, the travel agent told me she could not get through to United; I tried and was on hold an hour. The refund was granted with a $300 per person penalty; that was almost 6 weeks ago. I have yet to see the refund. You cannot talk to United directly without an hour wait; sometimes the call simply ‘hangs up’ and you get a dial tone. What happened to the ‘friendly skies’? Very bad service; sometimes problems happen (in my case a medical issue complete with physician letter stating my husband could not travel). The ‘old United’ dealt with such issues fairly; the new United????
    Fly another airline.

  • Julie

    We have been holding now for over 45 mins!!! I loved continental but ism sad to say this is one of the new horrible things about UNITED!!!!

  • TheHawaiiGuy

    I’m not really sure what United is up to these days. I’m a travel agent specializing in Hawaii and their fares this year, even from west coast cities like LAX and SFO, are OUTRAGEOUS. It’s $900/ticket in August.  For the first time in the 8 years I’ve been doing this it’s cheaper to fly from SAN and SEA on other carriers than it is from either of those other two cities.  A couple of weeks ago they stopped allowing people who booked our contracted bulk fares with them to use miles to upgrade, and then we just found out today that as of next week United isn’t offering any more contracted fares to wholesalers/travel agents anymore. Everything will be their published fares.  That’s so sad because they used to have the best price/schedules from the west coast.  Now they seem to have zero interest in working with wholesalers who used to bring them a ton of business.  They smile and say “thank you so much for your support!” and then as soon as your back is turned they act like they never want to do business with you again.  Absolutely infuriating.

  • ToddT

    I had 4 tickets for my family to fly and got seriously ill and had to cancel the trip. These were non-refundable/non-changeable but the United rep said submit a refund request with a doctor’s note to [email protected]. I submitted it with a note from my doctor explaining I could not fly (I was contagious with flu and running nearly 103 degrees temperature). I submitted the note/request to the mail address on their webiste, the email address above, and their fax number. They haven’t even acknowledged receiving any of the correspondence nearly a month later. I finally filed a grievance with my credit card. I don’t know what else to do if they won’t even acknowledge the correspondence. It’s awful. I have no idea where I stand on the tickets I purchased for over $1200.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Wolf-Kathleen/100001305696398 Wolf Kathleen

    I am no longer a fan of Southwest Airlines. I am a professional travel agent with 32 years experience. I’ve been hit twice with their hefty $150 debit memo fees, for what I call a glitch in THEIR system. They are ‘no waiver–no favor’ and won’t even discuss reviewing the situation. FIrst case: I had a ticket issued through Sabre with a ticket number. The ticket didn’t go through to Southwest, so I was hit with a $ 150 ‘no ticketing’ policy. The second trip I cancelled through Sabre. FIrst segment had a record locator–second segment showed RQ. Again..hit $150 for a debit memo. SW told me the ticket numbers don’t mean a thing to them..and RQ is not a confirmed reservation . Period. When I asked if they could half the penalty ($150 is way too steep!). they said absolutely not. Not now..not ever. Very rude.

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