United Airlines: Coronavirus (COVID-19) Latest Updates – Cancellation Policies, Status Changes, Routes, and More

United Airplane Newark New Jersey New York NYC
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Reduced routes, customer cancellations, and governmental restrictions have all meant that United Airlines has been seriously impacted by COVID-19. If you have an upcoming trip booked with United, you might have questions about what to expect on your upcoming trip or what will happen to the elite status you worked hard to obtain.

What options is United offering for changing or canceling your trip? If you have to fly, are there any lounges open? What precautions is United taking to keep you safe at the airport and during your flight? Will you still be able to maintain your MileagePlus elite status with your trips being drastically limited?

This article will answer all of your COVID-19 questions related to United Airlines.

Cancellation Policies

United has offered a more flexible change policy and waived change fees/mileage redeposit fees in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. These policies apply to all tickets — including non-refundable tickets.

We’ve broken down United’s change and cancellation policies due to COVID-19 in great detail.

Loyalty Extensions/Status Upgrades

Because you will likely be flying far less in the coming months as a result of COVID-19, United is offering some concessions for its MileagePlus customers. For example, United elite members will have their status automatically extended through January 31, 2022, and all travel certificates can now be used for 24 months.

Explore our specific elite status extension details for United, along with what other airlines are granting for their elite status travelers.

Credit Card Incentives

United credit card PQP earning path
Image Credit: United

United credit cardholders can earn Premier qualifying points (PQP) through their annual credit card spend and for 2021 can apply this earned PQP toward Premier 1K status. Visit United’s MileagePlus cardmember update page for more details and terms and conditions.

Status Match Challenge

United has a new status match challenge program for requests received between January 5, 2021, and September 30, 2021. If you meet the criteria to participate, you will have until December 31, 2021, to complete the Premier status match offer.

If you complete all criteria, “your account will be upgraded to Premier Silver, Premier Gold, or Premier Platinum status for 120 days based on the level you hold in your current frequent flyer program.” You will have specific PQF and PQP requirements to meet in order to keep the status for the remainder of 2021.

United Vacations

If you have made your vacation plans through United Vacations, it has updated its travel change and cancellation policy.

Flight Reductions and Cancellations

In the Q2 2021 earnings release, United noted that “the company expects continued gains as more businesses return by end of summer and into 2022, with a full recovery in demand anticipated by 2023.”

In other good news for the airline, United announced that it planned to fly “roughly 80% of its full schedule in July 2021 compared to July 2019.”

Domestic

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, United reduced domestic flights across the board. This is picking back up in 2021 as demand increases.

On the Q2 2021 earnings release, the key takeaways were that:

  • United announced 7 new domestic routes and launched 39 new domestic routes
  • United resumed 33 domestic routes that had been removed
  • Compared to March 2021, United had nonstop service in 55 more domestic routes in June 2021

International

While international flights nearly ground to a halt in July 2020, United has started to add back international service.

On the same Q2 2021 earnings release, the key takeaways were:

  • United announced 3 new international routes and 5 international routes (with 10 more international routes planned to launch later in 2021)
  • United resumed 14 international routes that had been removed
  • Compared to March 2021, United had nonstop service in 24 more international routes in June 2021

Important United News

United received governmental aid as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Under the terms of this $50 billion aid, all airlines — including United — were barred from cutting jobs through September 30, 2020.

Of the $50 billion, United received $5 billion in the form of a direct grant of $3.5 billion and a low-interest rate loan of $1.5 billion. It also noted that “the airline’s parent company also expects to issue warrants to purchase approximately 4.6 million shares of UAL common stock to the federal government.”

The second round of support came in December 2020 totaling $15 billion in aid for airlines.

On March 10, 2021, the American Rescue Plan was passed which included an additional $15 billion for airline support and roughly $3 billion specifically for United Airlines. The terms of accepting this aid again required that airlines not cut any jobs through September 30, 2021. Layoffs and furloughs for United were canceled based on this news.

United Club and Polaris Lounge Closures

Only select locations at United’s hub airports will remain open. Hours and available locations are subject to change and vary by location.

The following United Polaris and United Club lounges will remain open:

  • Chicago (ORD) — near gate B6, near gate B18, near gate C16, and across from gate F9
  • Cleveland (CLE) — between gates C14 and C16
  • Denver (DEN) — near gate B44 and near gate B32
  • Fort Lauderdale (FLL) — near gate C1
  • Honolulu (HNL) — above gates G2 and G3
  • Houston (IAH) — near gate E11, gate C1, gate C33 and Terminal B, South Mezzanine
  • Los Angeles (LAX) — near gate 71A
  • New York (LGA) — near the entrance of gates 40 to 59
  • Newark (EWR) — near gate C74 and near gate C93
  • Orlando (MCO) — near gate B43
  • San Diego (SAN) — between gates 47 and 48
  • San Francisco (SFO) — near gate E4 and near gate F11
  • Washington, D.C. (IAD) — near gate C7, near gate D8, and near gate 17

This United Club location is open with temporarily reduced hours:

  • Las Vegas (LAS) — between gates D33 and D35

Further, United Club guest access became more restrictive in May 2021. Star Alliance Gold members may only bring 1 guest if the guest is also traveling on the same flight as the elite member.

Bottom Line: All Polaris lounges are temporarily closed. In addition, if the United Club is not listed above, it is closed until further notice. 

Safety Changes

Additional safety precautions have been made as a result of the pandemic.

Food and Beverage Service

Changes to the food and beverage service include:

  • Moving to primarily prepackaged foods and sealed beverages
  • Suspending hot towel service
  • Use of pick-up pans to collect trash
  • Food and beverages are available for purchase, but payment must be saved to your account as physical credit cards are not accepted onboard

Beverage Service

  • If your flight is less than 1 hour, beverages are only available upon request
  • Coffee and tea are available on all flights
  • Alcoholic beverages are complimentary in premium cabins only
  • Wine and beer are complimentary on long-haul international flights
  • Beer, wine, and hard seltzer are available on mainline domestic flights over 2 hours and 20 minutes and flights between hubs

Food Service

  • Special meals are only offered on select flights
  • No snacks are available on United economy flights under 2 hours and 20 minutes or United first under 1 hour
  • For United first, on flights between 1 hour and 2 hours and 20 minutes, you’ll receive an “all-in-one” snack bag with an 8.5-ounce bottled water and 2 snacks; for flights over 2 hours and 20 minutes, you’ll be offered a choice between a selection of sandwiches and a snack box on select flights; for flights over 4 hours, you’ll receive a covered entree and sides
  • For United economy, on flights 2 hours and 20 minutes or longer, you’ll receive an “all-in-one” snack bag with an 8.5-ounce bottled water and 2 snacks; on flights over 4 hours, you can purchase snacks
  • Additional food offerings are available based on destination
  • See United’s website for full details

Seating Arrangements

United notes that it has adjusted the “seat selection systems to avoid where possible seating customers next to each other, except when traveling together. We’re also alternating window and aisle seats when seats are in pairs.”

Be prepared to be seated next to someone as seating is no longer restricted and demand for travel has returned.

Disinfection Changes

Hand Sanitizer United
Image Credit: United

At the airport, social distancing at customer service desks and check-in counters is encouraged using 6-foot guidance markers. Sneeze guards at check-in counters and gate podiums have also been put in place.

United encourages using united.com or the United app to check-in for your flight to limit in-person interactions or accessing common touchpoints.

Onboard, United has currently implemented electrostatic spraying on all inbound long-haul international flights, and mainline overnight aircraft at our U.S. hubs. As of June 2020, “all aircraft will have electrostatic spray on every one of our departures, in addition to disinfecting customer touchpoints and surfaces before every flight.”

When it comes to air circulation, United notes that “all mainline aircraft use a high-efficiency (HEPA) filter (like those found in hospitals) to circulate the air and remove up to 99.7% of airborne particles.”

As of May 12, 2020, United flight attendants will also be providing customers with hand sanitizer wipes when requested.

Face Masks

United Employee Wearing Face Mask
Image Credit: United

Flight Attendants

On April 24, 2020, United became the first major U.S.-based airline to require its flight attendants to wear a face mask while on duty. It has also implemented temperature checks for employees at United’s hub airports.

Passengers

As of May 4, 2020, all United travelers over the age of 2 are required to wear a face-covering on board that fully covers their nose and mouth. United representatives have masks available, free of charge, for those who need one. This requirement is in place until further notice.

There may be some allowable times when you can remove your face covering on the aircraft, such as when eating or drinking, or in the case that the aircraft decompresses and the use of oxygen masks is required.

If a customer cannot wear a face mask due to a disability or medical condition they can seek a mask exemption from United.

Also, as of June 18, 2020, United notes that “any passenger that does not comply when onboard a United flight will be placed on an internal travel restriction list. Customers on this list will lose their travel privileges on United for a duration of time to be determined pending a comprehensive incident review.”

In addition, starting on July 24, 2020, United extended the mask requirement to include wearing masks in the airport as well.

COVID-19 Testing Through United App

The CDC is requiring all of those travelers who are returning to the U.S. to get a COVID-19 test done prior to arrival. Between this and requirements for places like Hawaii and other international destinations, COVID-19 testing is more important than ever.

Luckily, the United website and app are rolling out updates to help with these requirements. You can now use either the website or app to book a COVID-19 test at more than 200 locations across the U.S. This tool, called the Travel Ready Center, not only notes what the specific entry (and reentry) requirements are in each destination but links to your reservation so you can be sure that your results will be accepted.

Health Self-Assessment Requirements

United announced that as of June 11, 2020, it will require all passengers to complete a “health self-assessment” during their check-in process on the United mobile app, United.com, on a United kiosk, or by reviewing and verbally confirming when checking-in with an agent at the airport to receive a boarding pass.

It notes that these questions on the “Ready-to-Fly” checklist “ask customers to confirm they have not experienced COVID-19-related symptoms in the 14 days prior to flying.”

The checklist includes the following:

  • You must wear a face-covering while onboard for the safety of everyone
  • Have not been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the last 21 days and have not experienced any of the following symptoms in the past 14 days (excludes symptoms from a pre-existing condition):
    • Temperature of 38°C/100.4°F or higher
    • Cough
    • Shortness of breath/difficulty breathing
    • Chills
    • Muscle pain
    • Sore throat
    • Recent loss of taste or smell
  • Have not had close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 14 days
  • Have not been denied boarding by another airline due to medical screening for communicable disease in the last 14 days

The checklist also affirms customers are willing to abide by the airline’s other safety protocols, including wearing a face covering, which is now mandatory for all employees and customers on board a United aircraft. Customers that are not able to confirm these requirements and choose not to travel will be able to reschedule their flight. Customers may also choose to check in at the airport for further review.

Fleet Changes

On United’s Q2 2021 earnings release, it announced the purchase of 270 new Boeing and Airbus aircraft, which it states is “the largest combined order in the airline’s history and the biggest by an individual carrier in the last decade.”

In addition, it also announced plans to “retrofit 100% of the mainline, narrow-body fleet” that will result in a “75% increase in premium seats per departure, larger overhead bins, seatback entertainment in every seat, and the industry’s fastest available Wi-Fi.”

Final Thoughts

United knows that it will be harder than ever to meet the minimum flying requirements due to the pandemic. Because of this, it has extended benefits and offered additional opportunities to earn PQPs for certain United credit cardholders.

If you must travel, many things will look different, like decreased food and beverage service, face masks, and seating arrangements. Sanitization efforts have been implemented to keep the aircraft clean and passengers safe on board.


Frequently asked questions

How is United Airlines handling COVID-19 seating?

United is separating customers and staggering seating where possible, but seating is not restricted and planes may depart completely full. Be prepared to sit next to a fellow passenger.

Is United Airlines giving refunds for COVID-19?

If your flight was canceled, you are entitled to a full cash refund. If you choose to cancel the flight yourself, you are eligible to receive a travel credit due to the current waivers in place. For more information, see Airline Cancellation Policies Due to Coronavirus (COVID-19) – Everything You Need To Know.

Do I need to wear a mask on United?

Yes. Federal law requires every passenger (over the age of 2) to wear a mask at all times in the airport and throughout the flight. Refusing to wear a mask can result in denial of boarding, removal from the aircraft, and/or penalties under federal law.

Please click here to see United’s mask policy.

Do I need a COVID-19 test to fly on United Airlines?

If you are flying to a location that is requiring a negative COVID-19 test (such as an international destination, Hawaii, etc.), United will ask for proof prior to boarding.

Note that you must also show evidence of a negative COVID-19 test to travel back to the U.S. from international destinations. Check out United’s COVID-19 site for more details.

Christy Rodriguez

About Christy Rodriguez

Christy was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but lived in Texas the majority of her life. Now, work has her living in the Bay Area with her husband and yellow lab. Her first international travel experience was for a summer study abroad program in Italy. After that, she knew that she was destined to travel as much as possible. Luckily, her husband worked at Southwest Airlines, so they were introduced to the exciting world of “non-rev” travel.

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4 comments

  1. Linda Feist January 13, 2021

    Why has United stopped direct flights from EWR TO HNL?

    Reply

    • Hi Linda,

      I would imagine it was due to reduced demand caused by the spread of the Covid-19. According to Google flights, it looks like they are scheduled to resume this route on March 4th.

      Reply

  2. James Grossman March 28, 2021

    I”m flying from IAD to SFO in May. Are there patterns in terms of day of week/time of day when flights are less crowded?

    Is United Club “safer” than waiting in general areas? I’m fully vaccinated.

    Reply

    • Hi James,

      Generally speaking, flights departing on Tuesday-Thursday will be less busy than flights departing Friday-Monday. The United Club might very well be “safer” than general parts of the airport, but it all depends on your comfort level. Safe travels!

      Reply

Any thoughts or questions? Comment below!

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