Comprehensive Guide to Airlines’ Pandemic Adaptations: United Airlines COVID-19 Response

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Updated March 28 2021

This is the sixth and final post of a series that looks at the coronavirus response from each of the six largest U.S. airlines. United is one of the U.S. legacy air carriers and as one of the largest U.S. airlines it has had to adapt quickly during the unprecedented drop in air travel demand that has occurred in the last few months. In other posts in this series, we looked at the responses from Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Airlines, JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines. In this post I will detail what United Airlines COVID strategy continues to be in regards to elite status extension, cancellation/change policy, lounges, credit cards, cleaning protocols, masks, CARES Act and any other changes.

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Elite Status:

United announced in April that it was issuing an elite status extension for all Premier members. This means that Premier members will have their current status through January 31, 2022. Additionally, United has announced a reduction in the Premier Qualifying Points and Flights (PQP and PQF) requirements to obtain each Premier status level. This promotion is good throughout 2021 and can make it a little easier to raise your status level for 2021. Per the airline, at least four flight segments (on United or United Express) are still required in order to obtain any level of Premier status.

Premier Status Requirements:

  • Premier Silver  8 PQF and 3000 PQP or 3,500 PQP and 4 PQF 
  • Premier Gold 16 PQF and 6,000 PQP or 7,000 PQP and 4 PQF
  • Premier Platinum 24 PQF and 9,000 PQP or 10,000 PQP and 4 PQF
  • Premier 1K 36 PQF and 13, 500 PQP or 15,000 PQP and 4 PQF

PQF-Premier Qualifying Flight   PQP-Premier Qualifying Points

While this reduction is not as low as we saw in 2020, it is lower than the normal requirements for each level of Premier Elite Status. Additionally the airline is offering the chance to earn bonus PQP on the first three PQP-eligible flights taken between January 1 and March 31, 2021 (customers without Premier status will receive 50% PQP bonus and Premier members will earn a 100% PQP bonus).

United is also be making an automatic deposit of PQP into travelers accounts based on their Premier status level. This amount is 25% of the PQP-only requirement. PQP will be deposited by February 1, 2021. The amounts per elite level are:

  • Premier Silver: 875 PQP
  • Premier Gold: 1,750 PQP
  • Premier Platinum: 2,500 PQP
  • Premier 1K: 3,750 PQP

PlusPoints are points awarded to Premier elite members that can be used for upgrades. For members that have PlusPoints that are going to expire by January 31, 2021, United is extending the expiration by 180 days. Skip Waitlist is an option for United’s highest elite tier, Premier 1K, and the airline is expanding its availability in long-haul international regions through 2021.

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Cancellation and Change Policy:

United announced on Aug. 30, 2020 that it was permanently eliminating change fees for all tickets (including award tickets), except basic economy, for domestic travel and flights between the U.S. and Mexico and the Caribbean. There will also be no change fees for international travel originating in the U.S. United became the first U.S. legacy carrier to announce the permanent elimination of change fees. However, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines quickly followed suit with similar policy changes. An unlimited number of changes may be made free of charge under this new policy. If the original flight was more expensive than the one you change to, United will not refund the fare difference but if the replacement flight is more expensive than the original, the traveler will be responsible for paying the difference.

Also beginning in January 2021 all travelers, regardless of the ticket purchased, will have the option to fly standby for free. This option will allow all travelers to find another same day flight with the same origin and destination and change to that flight as long as there is space available.

The airline is also waiving all award travel redeposit fees for reservations that are changed or canceled more than 30 days prior to departure. 

United is also extending its change fee waiver for all tickets issued through March 31, 2021. This temporary policy applies to all tickets issued after March 3, 2020. It applies to all domestic and international travel. The value of the ticket can be applied to a new one for at least 12 months from the original ticket issue date. Fare differences would be the responsibility of the traveler.

Group bookings made through the United Reservation’s Group Desk are still subject to change fees.

Lounges:

United Airlines has two types of lounges: the United Club and the Polaris Lounge. Polaris lounges are only for international premium cabin passengers. There are currently Polaris Lounge locations at five of America’s international gateway airports. All five of the Polaris lounges are currently closed due to the pandemic. There are many more United Club locations worldwide but currently only ten locations are open: Chicago (ORD, 1), Denver (DEN, 2), Honolulu (HNL, 1), Houston (IAH, 2), Los Angeles (LAX, 1), Newark (EWR, 1), San Francisco (SFO, 1) and Washington, DC (IAD, 2). 

Inside United Club locations that are open, the airline continues to enact new policies in order to ensure the safety of passengers and employees. The new protocols address three areas: Social Distancing, Safety, and Cleanliness.

  1. In regard to Social Distancing, United is reducing the number of passengers allowed in the club at any time. It is also removing and/or rearranging furniture inside the club to encourage distancing of guests. Some seats will be blocked to ensure that each customer has ample space. The company is also adding signs and floor placards to remind members to leave enough space between themselves and other members. The airline says that it will make an effort when possible to limit the number of people in close quarter areas such as restrooms and elevators.
  2. In terms of Safety, United Clubs are requiring that all travelers wear a face covering at all times except when eating/drinking. Face coverings will be provided for those passengers that do not have one. The clubs are also increasing the presence of hand washing/sanitizing stations. In order to provide more touchless services, the company is introducing the ability for the traveler to scan their own boarding pass upon arrival. Plexiglas barriers have been installed at service areas. There have been changes to the food offerings inside the clubs in accordance with the latest guidelines and local policies, these may include pre-packaged food items. 
  3. In regard to their cleanliness initiative, United Airlines is partnering with Clorox to reimagine their cleaning/disinfection protocols. The company has also partnered with the Cleveland Clinic for advice on their enhanced cleaning protocols. The airline has also introduced electrostatic spraying at select airports to enable disinfection of high-tough surfaces. Inside United Club locations, the company is striving to clean each seat after each use and upon request. The airline is also increasing the frequency of disinfection of high-touch surfaces. It is also providing single-use glassware upon request. 

Credit Cards:

There have been many cardholders that have reported being targeted for 5x points on grocery stores, gas stations and drugstores. According to sources, these increased points are good for purchases made from January 1 to March 31, 2021. This offer only applies up to $1,500 per month in purchases in each of those categories (grocery stores and Amazon). 

United is also allowing PQP earned from eligible credit card spend to count toward earning Premier 1K status.

The company is also giving credit cardholders the opportunity to earn PQP through credit card spend (this offer appears to be valid throughout 2021).

Earn 500 PQP for every $12,00 in credit card spend (Max PQP depends on card):

  • Up to 1,000 PQP in a calendar year: United Explorer Card, United Explorer Business Card, United Club Infinite Card, United Club Card, United Club Business Card, United MileagePlus Awards Card, United MileagePlus Card (annual fee), United Business Card and United MileagePlus Business Card
  • Up to 3,000 PQP in a calendar year: United MileagePlus Select Card and United MileagePlus Platinum Class Visa card
  • Up to 10,000 PQP in a calendar year: United Presidential Plus Card and United Presidential Plus Business Card
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Cleaning Protocols:

United Airlines has introduced their CleanPlus initiative in partnership with Clorox and the Cleveland Clinic

The United CleanPlus initiative starts when the traveler enters the airport. Some things that passengers may notice in the airport lobby may include: new signage and floor placards to encourage social distancing of at least six feet at check-in kiosks and at ticket counters and plexiglas barriers at check-in counters to give another layer of protection between agents and customers. Hand sanitizer stations have also been installed throughout terminals. Additionally, some check-in kiosks will be shut off to enable social distancing and the company will start to introduce touchless kiosks where a traveler can print a bag tag by using a QR code on their own device. 

At the gate there have been other changes as well. The airline is encouraging customers to be prepared to scan their own boarding passes. The carrier is also providing employees with more disinfecting products so that they can wipe down high-touch areas such as chairs and armrests in the boarding area. The carrier is also using the Clorox Total 360 electrostatic sprayer to disinfect gate areas with an EPA-approved solution to kill SARS-CoV-2. The airline has also changed the boarding process to board fewer passengers, from the back of the plane to front, at a time to reduce crowding at the gate and on the jet bridge. Additionally, the deplaning procedure will be done five rows at a time.

The company has also stepped up the cleaning process onboard the aircraft as well. United has introduced electrostatic spraying to its cleaning routine and according to the company it has been happening before every flight since June 2020. The carrier is also focusing on disinfecting high-touch areas such as tray tables and seatbelts. Flight attendants are also providing individually wrapped hand sanitizer wipes to all passengers as they board the plane.

United, like most of the other big air carriers, uses HEPA filtration systems onboard their aircraft. These filtration systems completely filter cabin air every 2-3 minutes and remove about 99.97% of particles. United is going a step further and maximizing these filtration systems during the entire boarding and deplaning process to further reduce the potential spread of COVID-19. Per a news release from United, air flows from ceiling vents in the cabin downward and exits through vents in the floor and sidewalls. Per Boeing, this top to bottom air flow and frequent exchange of air helps to reduce the front-to-back air movement.

The carrier has also started using handheld UVC lighting systems to clean sensitive switches and touch screens in the flight deck since those areas would be more difficult to wipe down or use electrostatic spraying in. 

In September 2020, the airline announced that it would add Zoono Microbe Shield, which is an EPA registered antimicrobial coating that forms a long-lasting bond on surfaces. The Zoono Microbe Shield “resembles microscopic pins once dry which rupture cell walls and membranes when microbes come in contact with them.” The carrier will use the NovaRover to apply this solution in a fine mist to all cabin surfaces within a 12-foot radius. This will be done during overnight cleaning procedures every seven days. In addition, the electrostatic spray disinfectant will continue to be applied to cabin surfaces before almost every departure. 

In January 2021, United announced that because of the CleanPlus initiatives listed above that it had received Diamond certification, the highest possible, from the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) and SimpliFlying. This certification recognizes United for providing a hospital-grade standard of cleanliness and safety. 

Masks and PPE:

United requires that all employees and passengers over the age of 2 years old to wear a face mask that covers both the nose and mouth. Face masks are required to be worn for the entire duration from check-in to leaving the airport at your destination (including at the gate, in United Club lounges, onboard aircraft and at baggage claim). Face masks can be removed temporarily to eat or drink. The carrier will have disposable masks to provide to travelers that do not have them. Passengers that do not comply with this requirement may have flight benefits suspended or be banned from future travel. Per the airline, a face shield cannot be used as a substitute to a face mask that covers the nose and mouth. If a customer believes that they have a circumstance that deserves an exemption, they should contact a United representative or speak to one at the airport. 

CARES Act:

The CARES Act is a COVID-19 relief package passed by the U.S. government in 2020. As part of this law, the Payroll Support Program provided aid to cover airline personnel payroll expenses to help cover shortfalls from lost revenue during the pandemic. The program has been administered by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The amount that each airline received was equivalent to 76% of of payroll expenses from April 2019 through September 2019. United Airlines and the Department of the Treasury came to an agreement as part of this program on April 21, 2020. United was given $4.95 billion in total payroll support, with $1.45 billion of that being a low interest loan with a 10 year promissory note. In exchange the Department of the Treasury received 4.6 million warrants for common stock in United Airlines at a price of $31.50 per warrant.

This program does also put some restrictions on executive pay and pay raises. 

As part of this program, the carrier had to forego any and all pay cuts and furloughs through September 2020. The program expired at that time and United did have to resort to furloughs. 

The government came to an agreement in December 2020 and extended the PSP program which enabled United to bring back its furloughed employees through March 2021. In January 2021 United Airlines got an additional $2.6 billion with $752.9 million being a low interest loan. In exchange the carrier had to proved 75 million warrants for common stock at a price of $43.26 per warrant.

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Other Changes:

  1. Advance seat selections will be limited and United says that when a flight is expected to be at least 70% full it will alert travelers up to 24 hours prior to departure with an offer to change their flight to a less full one, free of charge. The carrier is no longer blocking middle seats directly though.
  2. United is replacing snack/beverage service with an “all in one” economy snack bag. This will be given complimentary on flights of 2 hours and 20 minutes or longer. This is meant to reduce contact between flight attendants and passengers. The bag will include: a hand sanitizer wipe, 8.5oz water bottle, a Stroopwafel and a pack of pretzels.
  3. United is implementing employee temperature checks prior to a team member’s start of shift. 
  4. As part of the check-in process customers will be asked to complete a Health Self-Assessment. This will require customers to confirm that they have not experienced any COVID-19 related symptoms or been contact with anyone testing positive for at least 14 days prior to departure. Symptoms include: Fever of 100.4 F or higher, Cough, Shortness of Breath, Chills, Muscle pain, Sore throat and Recent loss of taste or smell. 
  5. The company states that it is also testing artificial intelligence that can assist with temperature screenings and crowd detection. 
  6. Electronic travel certificates are now valid for 24 months from the issue date.
  7. Pillows and blankets will be given onboard upon request only.
  8. United has teamed up with the CDC to collect travelers’ contact information on a volunteer basis in an effort to perform real time contact tracing. At check-in customers will be asked to opt-in and provide contact information of where they will be once they reach their final destination.
  9. United has partnered with GoHealth Urgent Care to provide COVID-19 testing for travelers departing SFO to Hawaii, in an effort to help travelers avoid mandatory quarantine requirements upon arrival. The airline has also expanded this testing effort to some domestic and international routes. The traveler will have the option to do a self-collected, mail-in test or a rapid test at the airport before departure.
  10. In late January 2021, United added a feature to its mobile app and website that allows travelers to upload and validate COVID test results, review local entry requirements, search for local testing locations and store vaccination records. This feature is called Travel-Ready Center. United is the first airline to integrate these capabilities into its own app and website, other carriers are utilizing third party apps to accomplish this.

Conclusion of United Airlines COVID-19 Response:

United Airlines has definitely taken a multi-faceted approach to ensuring customer safety and satisfaction during the pandemic. I feel like they have definitely gone above and beyond some of their competitors in some areas such as Elite Status and Credit Card offerings. However, I feel like even though it was the first airline to introduce the permanent elimination of change fees, this gave its competitors the chance to do the same thing but better. From my evaluation it seems that its cleaning protocols and masking policy are on par with what its competitors have enacted. To see articles on the other five airlines and how they compare just click the link below:

Alaska Airlines Response

American Airlines Response

Delta Airlines Response

JetBlue Airways Response

Southwest Airlines Response

The United Airlines website, Newsroom page, and the U.S. Department of the Treasury website were used as sources for this post.

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