A United 737-800 flying the friendly skies. Photo: John Nguyen | AirlineReporter

A United 737-900ER flying the friendly skies – Photo: John Nguyen | AirlineReporter

“Thanks, United” – it’s not a phrase you hear very often these days, but I want to give some credit where credit is due. Just a few weeks ago, after finding a great fare, my wife and I decided to take a long weekend trip to Cancun at the end of February. We were looking forward to sitting on the beach, soaking up some winter sun, and enjoying drinks at one of Cancun’s many all-inclusive resorts.  Well, a lot has happened since then.

Areas affected by Zika virus - Photo: CDC

Areas affected by Zika virus – Image: CDC

First, the Zika virus became big news. In case you’ve been living in a cave for the last few weeks, Zika has been spreading like wildfire throughout South America and has recently been making inroads into Mexico and the Caribbean. On the surface, Zika doesn’t sound so bad – it typically has mild flu-like symptoms and tends to clear up pretty quickly. However, doctors have recently noticed a scary trend, wherein babies born to women who contracted Zika during pregnancy exhibit alarmingly high rates of  birth defects. This led the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to issue an unprecedented travel warning, recommending that pregnant women avoid travel to all affected areas. Concerning, but still not worth canceling a trip over, given that neither of us were pregnant.

United Airlines' Zika Policy

United Airlines’ Zika Policy

Then came the bombshell – you all know where this is going – yup, it turns out that my wife is, in fact, pregnant. We were looking into whether the trip insurance on our credit card would cover canceling the trip – all signs pointed to ‘no’ – when the announcement came that United was offering to waive change fees, or issue full refunds of tickets to pregnant women with travel plans to Zika-affected areas. American, Delta, and several other airlines quickly followed suit.

We had to give up Cancun. But United made that easy. Photo: dronepicr | Flickr CC

We had to give up Cancun. But United made that easy – Photo: dronepicr | Flickr CC

We chose to keep our vacation and shoot for another destination. So, instead of relaxing on the beach in Mexico, we’ll be enjoying some California sun in Los Angeles.  Changing the tickets was easy – it just took a quick note to UA’s twitter account, followed by five-minute call to reservations. There was a slight increase in airfare, which I was happy to pay, considering I was recouping the entire cost of tickets that, several days earlier, I thought I wouldn’t have been able to use.

I’ll admit, I haven’t always been so enamored with United. As a semi-loyal United customer (mostly by necessity, not necessarily choice) with low-level elite status, I have experienced first-hand many of the frustrations of flying that particular airline. I felt the impact of the massive MileagePlus devaluation a few years back, groaned at the steady drumbeat of reduction of amenities in the name of cost cutting, and experienced the frustrating indifference with which they seem to treat families.

A United 787-9 touching down ’“ Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

A United 787-9 touching down ’“ Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

In recent months however, I’ve watched with guarded optimism as United has tried to turn the corner, reversing course on some of the more stingy cost-cutting measures. Alcoholic beverages are once again free in economy on transoceanic flights, snacks are reappearing on domestic flights, the food in the lounges has gotten a bit better, and just today, United announced that family pre-boarding is coming back. What stood out to me with the Zika policy is that United was the first major carrier to enact such a policy – it’s very refreshing to see United as a leader doing something for once, and not just following Delta.

I don’t know what we would do if this policy had not been implemented. Most likely, we’d bite the bullet and swallow the cost of the tickets, but I’ve got to admit we’d probably give serious thought to still going to Mexico. As it is, we’ve been able to relax, redirect, and not give Zika a second thought.  And, as much as it surprises me to say it, I’ve got United Airlines to thank for it.  Thanks, United.

This story was written by Michael Reynolds for AirlineReporter. 

From time-to-time we will share contributions from others on AirlineReporter. If you have strong writing skills, a passion for aviation and a story to tell, then learn about potentially sharing your story and then contact us. guest@airlinereporter.com

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JL Johnson

Interesting piece. Thank you for bringing to light an example of United being a leader (of something positive.) I sincerely hope this once great airline can turn things around. This example is a great step in the right direction. Well done, United.

I’m delighted to hear that United’s quickly changed , ‘change’ policy salvaged your tickets. That said, I was recently more or less forced to use United to reach a particular destination. Sadly, IMO, not much has really changed and they remain at the bottom of the domestic carrier bucket. They currently rake in billions on a network that is largely to/from cities without significant competition and usually rely on the ‘Take it or Leave it’ policy. Their service has not improved and I just found one more reason to avoid them when possible. Again IMO, UAL remains at the bottom of the list.
I recently made a different trip, on short notice to deal with a family emergency. UAL would not give me the time of day, but Delta bent over backward to be helpful. Save the Seattle base that delta inherited from NWA, they don’t have a huge presence in the Northwest. Still they were extremely helpful, the two legs each way were pleasant and they were extremely helpful. UAL would not even try. I AM happy that it worked for you, but face it; that is not the norm a UAL, not even close.

American Airlines not so lucky, wife and I have been trying to have baby and recently booked to Mexico. American air only will only cancel trip if you are in fact pregnant with doctors note on leader head……. Scanned on letterhead etc……wife has been on fertility treatment and may become pregnant anytime hopefully. Hotel in Mexico already refunded rooms completely no such luck with American.

I second that… Had to cancel today along with my husband and son after learning I am 6 weeks pregnant. I am very grateful to United for making canceling easy, as we have had this family trip planned for some time and making the decision to cancel was difficult enough. Very impressed with United’s customer service!

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