United Airlines has joined its peers in placing "use it or lose it" restrictions on nonrefundable tickets, a cost-cutting move critics say may backfire on the financially troubled carriers.
Effective Oct. 1, holders of most nonrefundable United tickets - typically those purchased at least two weeks in advance at lower fares - must either travel on their scheduled flight or change the reservation before it departs, for a fee.
If they don't, the ticket will lose its value. In the past, airlines allowed travelers who missed their flights to rebook within a year.
The change is one of several ticketing restrictions United has implemented or tightened in the past two weeks. United and its United Express partners carry nearly two-thirds of Denver International Airport's passengers.
US Airways, which filed for bankruptcy last month, initiated the changes. American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines now have similar policies.
Denver-based Frontier Airlines, the No. 2 carrier at DIA, has not changed its policy, spokeswoman Tracey Kelly said. The airline handles rebookings of missed flights on a case-by-case basis, she said, and does not automatically grant passengers a one-year credit.
United spokesman Chris Brathwaite said United adopted the new policies on Friday, after top rival American announced its change. Tickets purchased on or after Sept. 6 for travel after Oct. 1 are affected.
The carriers have also made flying standby more costly for nonrefundable ticketholders. Travelers who cannot make their flight and want to wait standby on a later flight in the day must pay $100.
Airline representatives have said the changes are necessary to help them increase their revenues and keep people from abusing nonrefundable tickets. Airlines charge less for these tickets for a reason, they say.
But corporate travel managers and travel agents are furious about the changes. They say airlines are biting the hand that feeds them.
"I think this is a terribly shortsighted decision," said Robert Polk, owner of Denver-based travel agency Polk Travel.
"At a time when they need as many customers as they can get and as much goodwill as they can get, shaking down their best customers is not the way to do it."
David Rojahn, president of the Rocky Mountain chapter of the American Society of Travel Agents, said Denver-area agents are worried their customers will blame them when the new rules catch them unaware.
"They're making customers jump through hoops," he said. "We cannot figure out what the rational is behind this and why they think this is the right time to do this.
``We're having a tough time explaining this to our customers."