After numerous complaints to the federal government by angry air travelers, the U.S. Department of Transportation warned airlines on April 3 that they have to issue refunds to passengers whose flights have been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But that doesn’t mean you’re immediately going to see a refund if you had a ticket booked.
The coronavirus has brought air travel to almost a complete standstill across the world. As governments continue to issue (or expand) stay-at-home orders for its citizens in an effort to prevent the spread of the illness, once-popular tourist destinations have become deserted.
Airlines have been hit hard by the pandemic. A report in early March suggested that globally, airlines stood to lose $113 billion, and later in the month, airlines sought a bailout from the U.S. government.
People who have had their flights canceled due to the pandemic have struggled to get their money back because many airlines have tried to settle the issue by providing a voucher for another flight at another time. But ticketed passengers are fighting for their money: The Los Angeles Times reported that a United passenger seeking a refund for a canceled flight has filed a class-action lawsuit against the airline.
The DOT enforcement notice said they’ve had “an increasing number of complaints” from passengers who had non-refundable tickets and were denied refunds by airlines after a flight was either canceled or significantly delayed.
DOT said it would give airlines a chance to act in good faith towards customers who are facing hardships during this health emergency. “Because the COVID-19 public health emergency has had an unprecedented impact on air travel, DOT’s Aviation Enforcement Office will exercise its enforcement discretion and provide carriers with an opportunity to become compliant before taking further action,” reads the statement.
Airlines should consider this a warning. If airlines don’t comply, DOT can take action later through consent orders and even fines.
DOT also clarified the policy it established after Sept. 11, 2001, for refunds in their notice. “The longstanding obligation of carriers to provide refunds for flights that carriers cancel or significantly delay does not cease when the flight disruptions are outside of the carrier’s control (e.g., a result of government restrictions).”
The agency told airlines in its statement that it realizes the airlines are also facing “major impacts” and outlined a process for them to work within the parameters of the policy without being prosecuted. These include contacting passengers about the ability to get a refund and changing its refund policies to clearly state refunds are available if the airline cancels a flight.
If you are a traveler looking for a refund, you should first try connecting with a representative at the airline you were booked on to resolve the issue before reaching out to the DOT to issue a complaint.