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United Airlines made it harder to get a refund amid coronavirus pandemic | COMMENTARY

Two passengers linger near the check in area for United Airlines at O’Hare International Airport’s Terminal 1 on Wednesday, March 4, 2020. United is making significant cuts to international and domestic flights as the coronavirus outbreak hits the global travel industry. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)
Two passengers linger near the check in area for United Airlines at O’Hare International Airport’s Terminal 1 on Wednesday, March 4, 2020. United is making significant cuts to international and domestic flights as the coronavirus outbreak hits the global travel industry. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)(Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune / Chicago Tribune)

The travel industry, like many others, has been hit hard by coronavirus, with airlines, lodging and rental car companies struggling to survive as entire countries go into lockdown mode and limit travel. This isn’t their fault, of course. It’s also not the fault of their customers, many of whom have had to cancel long-held plans to protect their health or comply with government directives.

Some businesses have recognized this and made the smart customer-relations decision to allow clients to cancel without penalty, rather than risk their lives to complete a booking. Airbnb, for example, changed its extenuating circumstances policy this month to allow domestic and international guests with check-in dates between March 14th and April 14th to rescind their reservations — even those with “super strict” refund policies — and still get their money back. For my family, that meant the return of nearly $2,000 we were set to lose. (Vrbo, on the other hand, is essentially telling rental customers “tough luck.”)

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And then there’s United Airlines, which refuses to face reality, even as it cancels flights and the U.S. State Department has issued a Level 4 “Do Not Travel” advisory, warning U.S. citizens “to avoid all international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19.”

The Chicago-based business — which is set to receive billions in a bailout from Congress — has gone out of its way to make it more difficult for customers to receive refunds on canceled flights amid the pandemic. Unfortunately, my family has some connection here, too.

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In a single week this month, United changed its policy four times regarding passenger rights when flights are altered. Pre-pandemic, if United changed a flight time by more than two hours, passengers were entitled to a full refund. But on March 7th, the same day the World Health Organization reported that there were now more than 100,000 cases of COVID-19 in 94 countries, United altered its policy to require a flight time change of at least 25 hours to receive a refund.

Amid backlash, it tried out two more policies: Refunds only if “departure or arrival time significantly changes,” whatever that means (March 10th); and refunds only if the flight is moved by more than six hours (March 12th). And then, on March 14th, the company settled on its current policy of credits even with six hour-plus changes — until a year has passed from the original date of purchase, at which time a refund may be issued.

For my family, that means United will hold onto $2,698.05 for seven more months, until November 1, assuming the airline is not in bankruptcy then. That will be exactly one year from the date we first purchased tickets to travel abroad over my daughter’s spring break, which had been scheduled for April 6th through 13th before coronavirus closed Maryland’s schools.

We were to fly into London and back home from Paris. But United inexplicably dropped Paris from our itinerary, and instead set our return flight in Newark, New Jersey — an entire continent away. Apparently, my little group of three was supposed to apparate from Europe to Jersey in order to catch our plane home (Harry Potter was, after all, expected to figure prominently in our London leg). The company also kept $60 in France-specific charges on our tab, even as it eliminated the country from our travel plans.

By the time this change came, we knew we wouldn’t take our trip, given the wide disease spread. But we hadn’t yet cancelled our flight in the naïve hope that United would stop trying to save itself by holding its customers’ funds hostage.

The continent shift seemed like a good time to reach out for a refund. But no, the customer care representative who called last week in response to my emailed query told me I could accept a credit for the amount and wait until fall to potentially get our money back. This, she said, was “fiscally responsible” on the part of the airline.

For whom? Certainly not the families in similar situations whose members have lost their jobs or taken pay cuts because of coronavirus. They may have been flush when they bought their tickets, but now that money is needed to live. Who knows what will happen in my own house in the coming months.

In an emailed statement Friday, United doubled down on its position, claiming its changes somehow benefited travelers by giving them "more flexibility in these extraordinary times.”

Hogwash. I understand United is hurting, but that doesn’t justify their keeping cash for services they have no intention of providing.

They’re also not the only bad actors. British Airways resorted to hiding its refund policy to trick passengers into accepting vouchers. And JetBlue is also reportedly offering credits instead of refunds for coronavirus canceled flights, in violation of U.S. Department of Transportation guidelines.

While such moves might help these businesses survive the pandemic, in addition to government stimulus funds, I can’t help but wonder if they’ll have any customers left. I would be wary to book again with United, while Airbnb can now consider me a customer for life.

Tricia Bishop is The Sun’s director of opinion content; tbishop@baltsun.com.

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