UPDATED DEC. 27, 2021 by Consumer Watchdog Associate Jacob van Cleef.
Data from the Department of Transportation (DOT) show that refunds – or lack of – have been the No. 1 complaint category against U.S. airlines since summer 2020. Our new research, released in a December 2021 report, shows complaints increased by 460 percent from February 2020 – the month before COVID hit – through August 2021, mostly due to complaints about refunds. Refunds make up 80 percent of complaints since March 2020, up from only 6 percent in the summer of 2019.
Issues with refunds are almost certain to continue after thousands of domestic flights were canceled by airlines just before and during Christmas weekend.
Public health officials continue to urge us to get fully vaccinated before traveling. Travelers have been trying to look into a crystal ball since spring 2020, booking future trips when it looks like things are improving, only to have those hopes of care-free travel squashed when the next COVID wave hits. However, most airlines are only offering vouchers, not refunds, when passengers cancel their flights due to concerns about COVID-19. Currently, refunds are only required by law when the airline cancels the flight itself, not when consumers cancel flights out of concern for their health.
Even when the airline cancels, we’re still seeing some carriers offer vouchers as the default option, without letting customers know they have the right to a full cash refund.
If you want a refund for your flight during the coronavirus crisis, here are the steps you should take:
Wait to cancel if you can
You are entitled to a full cash refund if the airline cancels, makes a significant schedule change or significantly delays a flight, so wait as long as possible to cancel. Unless a new law is passed, airlines won’t be required to give you a refund if you’re the one canceling. There has not been much progress on federal laws requiring full refunds, but the FAIR Fees Act, which restricts hidden fees during flying, was reintroduced in Congress in December 2021.
If the pandemic does get worse again this winter, perhaps with the arrival of the omicron variant, airlines may start canceling flights again. If that happens, we like this advice from Consumer Reports Aviation Adviser William J. McGee: Start calling your airline within two weeks of your flight if your airline hasn’t canceled it yet. This allows you to be proactive, as you wait for the airline to cancel first so that getting a refund will be easier.
As Anna Laitin, former director of financial policy for Consumer Reports, said during our joint webinar in 2020, persistence pays off for consumers who are legally owed refunds when the airline cancels the flight. You may have to ask for the refund. You may be offered a voucher instead, but as the Department of Transportation has reminded the airlines twice now, you are owed a refund. Do not take anything other than a refund.
But, if you already accepted a voucher for a flight the airline canceled, you are still legally entitled to and can ask for a refund instead.
Persistence may also pay off if you are the one canceling your ticket. On our webinar last year, Sen. Markey said that Allegiant and Spirit agreed to provide refunds to customers who ask for them. Consumer Reports has also heard some success stories from customers of other airlines. Make sure to have your flight information on hand when calling your airline.
You can always let the ticket agent know that since the pandemic began, transportation officials suggested that vouchers may not be enough. In general, try to work with customer service to get your refund instead of trying to force the customer service to give you what you want. The nicer you are to the worker, the more likely you are to be successful.
Dispute the charges with your credit card company
Have you persisted but hit a wall? Take it from my friend, James Nortey, who gave me permission to share his story with you:
“After American Airlines and United refused to offer a cash refund and only provided a voucher, I asked my bank to void the transaction as fraudulent and get a cash refund—it worked. I recommend this to everyone, but the point is you shouldn’t have to. Businesses should refund cash as the default option.”
James is spot-on. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has more on exercising your right to dispute charges as billing errors.
File a complaint with the Department of Transportation, and follow up
Suffice it to say, you’re not the only one having problems with the airlines. The DOT’s data shows that there were 138,316 complaints between March 2020 and September 2021. If you haven’t received a satisfactory resolution from your airline, you too can file a complaint with the DOT. The airline will be required to respond to you and the DOT.
Your complaint will also be part of monthly public reports, including numbers of complaints by company and types of problems. According to the DOT, “complaints can lead to enforcement action against an airline when a serious violation of the law has occurred. Complaints may also be the basis for rulemaking actions.”
In March 2022, the Aviation Consumer Protection Advisory Committee will hold another meeting to discuss refunds. A recommendation will likely be sent to the DOT about what to do about refunds moving forward. Before then, you can call the DOT at 202-366-4000 and email Secretary Pete Buttigieg to tell DOT officials the changes you want to see.
Your voice matters
On the morning of our webinar last year, we jointly delivered nearly 250,000 petition signatures with Consumer Reports and Jennifer Stansfield to 11 of the major airlines (electronically, of course).
Jennifer canceled a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Italy with her husband but could only get a voucher from United, not a refund. So she started a Change.org petition that has generated 186,000-plus signatures. That’s an awesome story about the power of one person’s voice!
It’s not too late to have your voice heard too. You can take action by sending a message to the DOT today.
Consumer Watchdog Associate Jacob van Cleef contributed to this piece.
U.S. PIRG cohosted a livestreamed press conference in May 2020 on airline refunds with Consumer Reports, consumer-turned-activist Jennifer Stansfield and Sen. Ed Markey (MA). The discussion focused on the problems consumers are facing trying to get refunds during the COVID-19 pandemic and what is being done about them.