UPDATE: We first posted this blog in May. We continue to recommend its advice, especially since the most-recently released Department of Transportation data show that, in August 2020, refunds were the #1 complaint category (80% of all complaints) against US airlines; up from the #5 complaint category (6%) in August 2019.
U.S. PIRG cohosted a livestreamed press conference in May 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.
Public health officials continue to urge us to avoid all unnecessary travel. 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.
I 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 and let them know that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) advises that staying at home is the best way to protect yourself and others. 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, director of financial policy for Consumer Reports, said during our joint webinar, 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 (DOT) has reminded the airlines twice now, you are owed a refund.
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, 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 Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao acknowledged just this week that vouchers may not be enough and asked the airlines to “reconsider their customer service policies, so that these policies are as flexible and considerate as possible to the needs of passengers.”
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 (DOT)
Suffice it to say, you’re not the only one having problems with the airlines. The DOT released numbers on Wednesday showing that airline complaints more than quadrupled in March. 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.”
Sign our petition
On the morning of our webinar last week, we jointly delivered nearly 250,000 petitions with Consumer Reports and Jennifer Stansfield to eleven 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 174,000+ 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 sign our petition here.
Ask your legislators to support the Cash Refunds for Coronavirus Cancellations Act
Also on the morning of our webinar last week, Sen. Markey introduced a bill (S.3727) that mandates full cash refunds during the COVID-19 pandemic (it was a busy morning). Original cosponsors are Sens. Richard Blumenthal (CT), Elizabeth Warren (MA), Chris Murphy (CT) and Kamala Harris (CA).
Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Congresswoman Lauren Underwood (IL-14) introduced a companion bill in the House. Original cosponsors of the House bill are Reps. Andre’ Carson (IN-07), Bobby Rush (IL01), Danny K. Davis (IL-07), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.), Eliot L. Engel (NY-16), Gilbert R. Cisneros (CA-39), Hank C. Johnson Jr. (GA-04), Lou Correa (CA-46), Jamie Raskin (MD-08), Jan Schakowsky (IL-09), Jesús “Chuy” García (IL-04), Joe Courtney (CT-02), Joe Neguse (CO-02), Marcy Kaptur (OH-09), Mike Thompson (CA-05), Paul Tonko (NY-20), Peter Welch (VT-01), Rashida Tlaib (MI-13), Stephen Lynch (MA-08), and Tim Ryan (OH-13).
U.S. PIRG is proud to have endorsed these bills, both of which could use more cosponsors in Congress. Contact your legislators and ask them to support the bill!
As Senator Markey put it, “We do not have a choice. We must give this money back to passengers. Give it back to consumers.”
I couldn’t agree more.