When you’re scheduled on flight number 1234, and you get a message saying that flight won’t be happening, what would you call that? United, in perhaps the most oddly amusing recent attempt to run circles around government refund laws involving cancellation, says it’s not a cancellation, and that cancellations aren’t real.

Mind blogged? You’re not alone – but then again, this is United.

Travel blog View From The Wing shared one of the most “unique” sets of correspondence between an airline and a customer, in which a flight was cancelled by any normal definition of the word cancel, and the customer wanted a refund. Any flight which is cancelled for any reason, which a customer no longer wishes to take is eligible for a refund, not a voucher – and that’s an important distinction.

FYI travel nerds, the US Department of Transportation recently wrote to airlines that it’s upholding rules stating that refunds must be offered when flights are cancelled, or schedules are significantly changed. If you are in a similar boat, read this.

United’s response was that a cancelled flight doesn’t correspond to a flight number, or a time and that therefore a refund was not due. The plane sitting at the gate that says on time, then says cancelled isn’t cancelled. Confused? Read United’s correspondence for yourself…

“Our Schedule Change Refund policy is in compliance with the DOT statement.

United definitions, which are compliant with applicable law:

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.

I completely understand you’d prefer not to travel at this time. You are correct; we do have an obligation to refund your money if we cannot re-accommodate you on another flight without significant delay. If we can provide transportation within 6 hours of your original departure or arrival time, this is not defined as a cancellation.”

But… it is a cancellation. As View From The Wing notes, if an airline had 8 flights a day between two cities and reduces service to 3 flights per day, what happened to the other 5 flights. Cancelled, right? This is an incredible reimagining of the world, not far off from “alternative facts”.

By this definition, the only way United would ever need to offer a refund is if it cannot move a traveler from one destination to another, within 6 hours of the original schedule. That’s a lovely thought, for United, but it’s not the law and it’s not the reality set forth by the United States DOT.

It’s an impressive week for United, which chose to use the business week to close the last loophole to the airline’s “show me the money” loyalty program. Now this? Golden.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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25 Comments

  1. It’s important for us all to remember – when things get back to normal – which airlines treated us correctly, and which didn’t

  2. Not sure why you fail to acknowledge that this is a widespread issue, thereby excusing other airlines for doing the same things.

  3. Clearly been taking lessons from the Snr Cruz dictionary… “enhancements” anyone? Or “generous” catering with “substantial” second meals… aka half a small sandwich.
    United are not the first to deploy Orwellian newspeak against customers!

  4. Slightly of topic, but related, recently, Delta had to cancel a flight for which I was ticketed. I specifically requested e-credits because I was closing the CC account from which I purchased the ticket and thought this would be simpler since I knew I’d still use the credits (the refund could take 21 days and e-credits would be immediate). It shocked me when they said they could not make the refund in the form of credits, that I would have to wait for the cash credit back on to my card. It the end, it all worked out, but I was surprised.

  5. The trick here is that all airlines publish schedules 11 months in advance that they have no intention to adhere to. They’ve done that for years and years. It just hasn’t been an issue until now.

  6. Wow. Kirby makes another Out To Lunch Sorenson type move. On what planet do they think these are good ideas? It’s like a handbook for getting the government to force more competition.

  7. Biggest laugh I’ve had all week.
    United has changed the rules so anytime they can make you wait around 6hours?

    Hahahaahaha. They’reout of my consideration for any flight I can possibly flying them now.

    1. They’ve also used this opportunity to pare down the amount they’re willing to give in ETCs in case of a voluntary denied boarding, from max of $10k, to now being $2.5k. The $10k was put in place after the Dr. Dao incident, and either they really thought this was going to hurt them or they just realized it was the perfect time to drop it.

  8. Virgin Atlantic did the same. Just” re-scheduled” the flight “for me” (to a different time, flight, and carrier as original was Delta code share) without telling me the original was cancelled.

  9. clearly adopting the same vile tactics that scumbag airline Vueling uses to circumvent paying out EU compensation. Why are corporations who make billions off the back of their customers so unscrupulous, unethical and downright shady?

  10. I am not quite sure what the great heat is about here. United contractually defines “cancellation” to exclude changing your flight from that booked to another flight that departs from the same point and arrives at the same destination, and leaves within six hours. This effectively excludes compensation for late arrival if the flight is changed which may be extremely inconvenient but they will get you there. The EU regulations recognize this type of late arrival and impose heavy financial penalties on airlines that get you to your destination more than three hours after the contractual, i.e. originally booked, time, absent special circumstances out of the airline’s control.

  11. This is standard procedure with airlines and in line with letter of the law but airlines over the years since 07-08 have leaned more on the Customer Service side.

  12. While I agree the 6 hour time period is unacceptable this is a common practice for all airlines. Read the contract of carriage. The airline is allowed to make changes. How many times in the past have you gotten notification that “your flight has changed” and when you looked the flight number may have changed or the arrival/departure time moved (usually by only a few minutes). You shrug and move on. No one considered these (even the flight number changes) as a “cancellation” and therefore shouldn’t now simply to justify getting a refund on a trip they don’t want to take. Basically you aren’t buying a specific seat on a certain flight, you are buying a service to get you from point A to point B in a specific class of service at a certain time. Provided the time isn’t changed in an unreasonable manner and is compliant with the airline contract to get you to your destination you really have no legal or ethical recourse.

    I get it – I have $1000 in tickets next month on American that likely won’t meet the definition of a “cancellation” even if there are minor changes. I’ll just have to accept the credit and use that later (provided any changes to the flight are within the 2 hours American allows for changes).

    OMAAT and VFTW are making this a huge deal and people are threatening all kinds of actions but provided the airline is within their contract (which you agreed to whether you know it or not when you bought the ticket) they have every right to refuse a refund and simply issue a credit. They could even impose the $200 change fee if they wanted to (although practically all carriers are waiving this now).

  13. And now, please join me in a chorus of the Sons Of Maxwell’s popular song, “United Breaks Guitars.”

    United Airlines has had several notable stumbles in terms of presenting a customer-friendly image. When the one doctor was dragged off the plane, I started jokingly referring to them as “UnINVited Airlines.”

    I’m serious when I say that the guy from Sons Of Maxwell had the right idea. If everyone who walked by the United ticket counters and service gates would just sing a chorus of “United Breaks Guitars,” maybe things would change. It will take public complaints loudly voiced to make the lasting impact that needs to happen.

  14. I wonder how United would respond if you had your credit card payment “Removed from the schedule(d payment)”. I didn’t cancel the payment, I just readjusted my expenditures.

  15. If the airline can still get you there in a reasonable time frame in time for whatever you went there for, I think it’s fair for them to reschedule onto alternative flights. Is the goal to avoid flying because of fear, or is it because the trip is no longer necessary or feasible?

    Another reason why canceling may not be such a great idea. I had a recent situation where my flight was canceled but Delta rescheduled me rather than canceling, which is good because it was the return part of an international trip that originated overseas (long story) and there is no way I could have bought an equivalent one way with the residual value of the ticket.

  16. I have to agree with United on this one, assuming they attempted to rebook the passenger on another flight. Their written response seems to indicate that they did try to rebook the passenger on another airplane/flight number. Rules state that any delay longer than six hours that cannot be accommodated is a cancellation. If the passenger was offered a flight to his destination within the 6 hour departure window, then it is not a cancellation, but a delay. However, the article is fairly one sided in that it does not indicate what United did offer to the passenger.

  17. There is a way to deal with a situation like this with all businesses. Simply go to your credit card website and dispute the payment. The credit card company will immediately put the money back on your card and ask the seller for his side of the story. The seller has 60 days to reply and contradict your version of the facts and/or law. Few do so. If they don’t respond, the money is yours to keep. And if they do, you can go back and present more of your case. Try it, you’ll like it.

  18. Gilbert –
    Keep up the good work of calling out United and other airlines that continue to treat customers as an inconvenience and profit center. The replies here (excerpt for Pete who is a parallel universe) that somehow justify a 6-hour change as NOT being a cancellation is frightening…..soon anything unethical a corporation does against it customers is “justifiable” as “business as usual”. It is exactly what United is hoping for. Your blog brings much needed publicity to airline practices that continue to make the customer the problem.

  19. How about this example of United hospitality…We were scheduled to fly to Cancun on May 4. Flights into CUN were stopped so…without notification from UA of any sort, I went to my UA account to verify the cancellation of the flight. It was still there under the original Record Locator – but the DESTINATION of the flight had been changed to Houston. But, according to their definition, my flight was not cancelled. Luckily we booked 3rd party and were able to get our points refunded. Not exactly what I expected, even for United.

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