How I Got Caught Up In United Airlines’ Redefinition Of “Cancelled”

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When it comes to discussing refund policies during the pandemic, there are two groups of airlines…United Airlines and everyone else.

I’ve written several stories about mounting passenger frustration concerning how airlines are handling refunds. However, this is the first time that I am writing about my personal experience because it’s been fairly smooth sailing so far.


Over the past few weeks, I’ve cancelled 27 scheduled flights (but that’s a different blog). Generally, my technique has been to wait until the airline:

  1. cancels the flight or;
  2. adjusts the flight schedule

With that technique, there won’t be much debate when I contact the airline and say, essentially, “hey, I’d like money back because I paid for a service that you’re not providing.”

Given that airlines continue to scale down operations and cancel flights daily, I haven’t had any trouble…until yesterday.


First, let’s talk about law. The Department of Transportations (DOT) makes it very clear that airlines have to provide refunds in the event that they cancel a flight.

“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.”

*the bold print is my emphasis*

Regardless to what “rules” the airlines have, the DOT is boss and what they say is the final word.

In fact, when this all started, most airlines were playing games with refunds but once the DOT issued a statement saying “give the people their money or we’ll take action,” all airlines fell in place.

Well, United wasn’t happy with that so they decided to, literally, redefine the word “cancelled.”

Gary from View From the Wing alerted us of this a couple weeks ago but I hasn’t paid much attention because I assumed they would fall in place too. But as my mom says…you know what happens when you assume!

Here is how United is defining “cancelled” and I’m not kidding here…this is directly from them.

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.

Did you see the word play? United is effectively saying cancelled flights don’t exist and they will only provide refunds for significant delays.

For simplicity, Gary gives a great example and says this:

If an airline used to fly 8 times a day between two cities, and now flies just 3 times a day, that airline has cancelled 5 flights even though the airline can still accommodate the customer. United disagrees.


Yesterday, I was told that I could not get a refund for a flight that I booked with United because my flight had not be cancelled.

After debating for 10 minutes with no success, I decided to give up as I decided it wasn’t worth the effort.

After all, this is the same airline that dragged a bloodied doctor off a plane and claimed he was merely being “reaccommodated.”

Has anyone else had challenges with United?


  1. I already told you about mine. My round trip from Miami to Lisbon ended up with a significant schedule change to becoming a Miami to Newark flight. Lol. They said refunds could take 18-21 days. I’m still monitoring Chase to see when it will post. I booked through chase so I had them call.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What? That’s crazy! What United seems to forget is that even with everything that’s happening, there’s still other options out there. I will certainly avoid United when I start booking air travel again.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Honestly, it doesn’t surprise me. They are attempting to cut costs on all fronts even if it means going against the law. This goes back to my recent post about the Boeing CEO saying a US airline will go bust. These tactics lead me to think UA is in a worse situation than ppl think. However, the problem with most bad situations is that memories are short. There were calls to boycott UA when Dr. Dao was dragged off. Interestingly, even without a few UA promotions or sales, UAs load factors went up. Hopefully, passengers don’t forget the customer service they received when things weren’t going so well and vote with their wallet when things return to normal.


  4. I am not sure how American is handling things during the pandemic but when I used to work for them they would delay a flight to the next day and avoid the term “cancellation”. By doing so they were able to bypass certain accommodations that came with a cancellation. This practice can be misleading to the consumer as some business and veteran travelers look at cancellation rates to determine who to fly. It appears that United is willing to sacrifice customer service to preserve as much cash as possible. With many airlines in survival mode I wonder if others will or are doing the same.


  5. Thank you. That’s amazing insight into this situation. Despite the challenges, AA (and Delta) are handling this is amazingly well. I did not have any problems with my cash (or award) refunds with either. It’ll be interesting to see how customers respond when things return to “normal.”


  6. Norwegian Airlines was trying to get me to cancel my flight in order to request a refund. Booked the flight with cash and had Chase hit them with a charge back. Chase reimbursed my transaction in full.

    Liked by 1 person

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