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The Current State of Airline Refunds

by SharonKurheg

When the world stopped because of COVID-19, so did travel. Airlines initially didn’t want to give refunds for canceled flights. But in early April the Department of Transportation (DOT) said they must do so, if passengers didn’t want a voucher.

In mid-May, we reported that despite the DOT’s statement in April, airlines not giving refunds for canceled flights was still a big issue. The DOT said they had received about 25,000 complaints in March and April combined (they usually get about 1,500 per month), so they took these measures to remind passengers of their rights, and airlines of the rules.

In June, they gave an update about the matter.

DOT Secretary Elaine Chao said that improvements have been made and airlines are giving passengers refunds when flights have been canceled or rescheduled to a time nowhere near the original, because of COVID-19.

After being called out by the publication on June 17, in a June 22 first-person opinion piece for USA Today, Chao said that, thanks to the DOT’s actions, “…and to avoid further alienating customers, improvements are being made in refund processes.

No specifics were given and the official numbers that reflect this statement haven’t been released yet. The DOT’s latest Air Travel Consumer Report, issued in June 2020, only show complaints up to April. Just for the record, on the 20,000+ complaints they received in that month alone, over 17,000 were due to refunds. In April 2019, there had been 98 complaints about refunds.

However, there are actually two fronts when it comes to requesting a refund. There are those Chao spoke about, regarding airlines that were (or still are) canceling or vastly changing flights. There are also the people whose flights haven’t been canceled/changed, but they have what could be considered reasonable COVID-19-related reasons for not wanting to fly:

  • They’re at high risk and/or are scared to fly due to health and safety reasons
  • They were on state-mandated lockdown orders and couldn’t fly
  • They were/are going to a place where a mandatory 2-week quarantine would now be required when they got back home (or when they arrived)
  • The reason for their trip was no longer available (i.e. they were going to a wedding but the wedding’s been delayed)
  • They’ve lost their job due to the pandemic and are strapped for cash

Chao says they’re trying to sort out all those differences and have been “pressuring” airlines to be more understandable and flexible in offering refunds.

Pressuring? That’s pretty vague.

The Boston Globe, USA Today and Consumer Reports say that the DOT, which is supposed to protect airline passengers, could be doing more. That instead of “suggesting” the airlines to give refunds fairly, they should be “compelled” to do so. From Consumer Reports:

Under current law, Secretary Chao has the authority to declare the airlines’ refusal to provide refunds to be “unfair” and unlawful and require that they return consumers’ money. Previous Transportation secretaries have used this same authority to require airlines to include all fees in advertised fares and adopt strong security measures following 9/11.

Meanwhile, William McGee, aviation adviser at Consumer Reports was quoted in the Boston Globe as saying, “To be very clear we have spoken to the consumer division of the Department of Transportation. More than once,” he said. “We have asked ‘Are you going to be introducing additional language to close these loopholes?’ and the answer has consistently been ‘No.”

It’s unfortunate that consumers have to be their own advocates. But if that’s how it has to be at this time, as per the Boston Globe, McKee suggests:

…travelers experiencing difficulties with airlines should ask the airline for a full cash refund, gather all documentation before getting on the phone, file a claim with the DOT, and dispute the charge with the credit card company. Persistence is key. You may have to call back several times until you get a representative who will listen to you and understand your problem.

What do you think?

Obviously, if an airline has canceled or significantly changed a day or time of flight, the consumer has the right to a refund. But what about the murky waters of other reasons for requesting a coronavirus-related refund? Do you think they should be honored with a refund? Should the airlines be allowed to give a voucher instead? Or do you think that since it wasn’t the airlines’ fault, they don’t owe the passenger anything?

Let us know in the replies.

*** Feature photo: www.gotcredit.com

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary

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