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United to reinstate minimum-stay rule

Most coach fliers will be subject to the overnight requirement.

June 21, 2008|Adam Schreck | The Associated Press

UAL Corp.'s United Airlines said Friday that it would again require minimum stays for nearly all domestic coach seats, starting in the fall. It also is raising its cheapest fares as much as $90 one way.

The nation's second-largest carrier said the moves were among a number of changes, including flight and job cutbacks, it was making amid record-high fuel prices.

The Chicago-based airline has been among the industry's most aggressive in pushing fares and fees higher in recent months, and those efforts have often been matched by other carriers. All are scrambling to raise revenue as the industry faces a record multibillion-dollar loss this year.

Starting Oct. 6, most of United's economy-class fares will require a one- to three-night or weekend-night minimum stay, spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said. The policy does not apply to fliers in other classes.

The new rules are bound to be unpopular with business travelers who prefer to catch a flight out early in the morning and be back home in time for dinner.

"They'll push back big time," said Mike Boyd, a Colorado-based aviation consultant. "It's one thing to simply raise fares. It's quite another to do it by imposing restrictions that appear to make it harder to conveniently fly."

Major carriers scrapped most minimum-stay rules -- put in place largely to discourage big-budget corporate travelers from snatching up the cheapest seats -- at the start of the decade, though United and other airlines recently started bringing the overnight rules back piecemeal.

Friday's changes are far more sweeping because they also apply to highly competitive routes where United goes head-to-head against lower-cost rivals such as Southwest Airlines Co. and JetBlue Airways Corp.

"At the end of the day, it's all about improving our profit as we combat these record high fuel prices," Urbanski said.

How long passengers have to stay under United's new minimum-stay policy will depend on the destinations, the price of the ticket and the length of the flight. For example, travelers booking the cheapest seats between Chicago and Minneapolis or Boston and San Diego will now be forced to stay three nights or the weekend, Urbanski said.

Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, said that as long as fuel prices remain high, United and other carriers have little choice but to find ways to raise cash.

"Is there going to be a price to pay for it in terms of traveler backlash? The answer is yes," he said. "But there are simply no good answers right now. . . . We have a full-blown crisis heading for a catastrophe."

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