United, other airlines offer break on ticket-change fees as coronavirus decimates travel demand

United, other airlines offer break on ticket-change fees as coronavirus decimates travel demand

As the coronavirus wreaks havoc on travel, United and other airlines waived ticket-change fees yet again to let passengers who booked tickets for flights through the end of April change for free before the end of the year.

“Given the high level of uncertainty regarding travel because of COVID-19, we are working hard to give customers more flexibility,” the airline said late Monday night, using the term for the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

If you’re a United traveler who booked a ticket before March 2 to travel between March 10 and April 30, you can change to a flight of equal or lesser value for free. If the flight is more expensive, you won’t be charged a change fee, but you pay the difference. If you cancel, you can retain the value of the ticket to be applied to a new one. Tickets must be reissued on or before Dec. 31 or 12 months from the travel date, whichever is earlier.

United has made similar moves to other major airlines like Delta, Alaska, and JetBlue. Last week, airlines announced that change fees for tickets booked in March for any destination and date in the future would be waived. Some Bay Area travelers, especially those in a high risk category for the coronavirus, were concerned that previously booked flights weren’t covered with the virus now spreading. This week starting on Monday, airlines announced they were waiving change fees for tickets purchased on or before the beginning of March for flights through the end of April.

Southwest has long had a policy of not charging ticket change fees, which remains in place. Passengers only pay the difference in ticket price.

United, which has a hub at San Francisco International Airport, is cutting its international schedule by 20% and its domestic schedule by 10% in March and April. At SFO, United flights to China are already canceled; to Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore are reduced. Routes to Italy, where authorities have locked down the country to fight the coronavirus, are also curtailed, although SFO does not have any direct flights to that region.

Amid plummeting demand, United is cutting back its workforce by offering voluntary unpaid leave, freezing hiring for nonessential staff, and halting salary raises for management. Before the crisis, the airline had 13,000 employees based at SFO.

In a related development, Airbnb said Tuesday it would ease cancellation policies in response to the coronavirus outbreak and travel restrictions. Its new “more flexible reservations” features provide filters for guests to seek accommodations with specific types of cancellation policies, full refunds of Airbnb guest service fees for reservations made now through June 1, and rewards for hosts who are flexible about giving refunds on cancellations.

The San Francisco company said 60% of its listings already offer flexible and moderate cancellation policies, and others may be eligible for “extenuating circumstances” cancellations.

Check websites for up to date policies and see what you should know if traveling.

Staff writers Carolyn Said and Kathleen Pender contributed to this report.

Mallory Moench is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: mallory.moench@sfchronicle.com Twitter:@mallorymoench

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