Just in time for the novel coronavirus, United has a novel definition of cancellation. Does United’s new definition fly or is it another slap in the face of consumers?
Three of my favorite blogs have addressed this issue and several of you have asked me to do the same. For other viewpoints, see:
Let’s start by examining what U.S. law requires, then examine how United has redefined cancellations, and finally I will share my viewpoint.
What Is Required Under Law?
As recently as last month, the U.S. Department of Transportation reiterated that cancelled flights entitle customers to cash refunds:
“U.S. and foreign airlines remain obligated to provide a prompt refund to passengers for flights to, within, or from the United States when the carrier cancels the passenger’s scheduled flight or makes a significant schedule change and the passenger chooses not to accept the alternative offered by the carrier.”
DOT has further clarified that “if your flight is cancelled and you choose to cancel your trip as a result, you are entitled to a refund for the unused transportation – even for non-refundable tickets.”
Furthermore, these refunds must be processed within 20 days.
> Read More: If The Voucher Doesn’t Suit, You Must Dispute.
> Read More: What Constitutes A “Significant” Flight Schedule Change?
How United Has Redefined A Flight Cancellation
United Airlines has taken a more aggressive approach than others to preserve cashflow. In doing so, it has stretched traditional definitions of schedule changes and flight cancellations.
Here’s how United has re-defined three key terms:
Schedule change: A flight is removed from our schedule, but the customer can be accommodated within 6 hours.
Significant Schedule Change: A flight is removed, and a customer cannot be accommodated with an impact of 6+ hours.
Cancellation: A flight is removed, and we cannot accommodate the customer.
If we remove a flight from our schedule and can accommodate the customer with another flight within 6 hours, that is not considered a cancellation.
A cancellation is not based on flight number or tail number, but on the ability to provide transportation to our customer without significant delay.
United claims it definitions and polices are in compliance with DOT mandates.
Yes, United no longer “cancels” a flight, it simply “removes” it from the schedule. Furthermore, United only defines a cancellation as a flight “removal” plus an inability to get the customer in the air within six hours.
Notice, United does not even say a passenger must arrive within six hours of original arrival time, one that a customer must be “accommodated” within six hours, suggesting a customer must only begin flying within that six-hour time frame.
For those of you hoping I will defend United, I’m sorry to disappoint. This is an absurd new definition that is simply indefensible.
If United hired me to defend this move, I’d probably try to spin it in this way:
- This is a “force majeure” event that is beyond United’s control
- Per the Contract of Carriage, United is not obligated to provide refunds due to “force majeure” events
- Therefore, any refund offered is simply an extension of goodwill and non-obligatory
I don’t think that is very persuasive, for arguments I will make in a subsequent post, but “we are fighting for survival” defenses are even weaker.
The law is clear in this case. There is no such thing as a flight removal, only a flight cancellation. United’s conduct in skirting refunds is indefensible.
I would love to hear someone cogently and persuasively defend United’s practice. I also note that United is not alone in dodging refund obligations, though American and Delta have been much better at issuing refunds, especially for flight cancellations. But as much as I am known as the resident “United fanboy” among our community, I cannot and will not defend this sort of Orwellian re-definition. To that end, I hope the DOT puts some pressure on United to have a quick change of heart.