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.