You Can Demand a Cash Refund (Not a Voucher) for Your Canceled Flight

It’s heartening to see that many businesses are doing the right thing for their customers and employees during this unprecedented pandemic. The reaction from domestic airlines, however, has been another matter. One of the most glaring ways they’re currently screwing over ticket-holding passengers is by only offering flight vouchers instead of the refunds they’re legally owed.

In a recent memo, the U.S. Department of Transporation (DOT) confirmed it’s received an alarming number of new complaints from passengers. Many are being denied cash refunds, even for flights that were substantially delayed or canceled altogether due to the coronavirus pandemic. Some major airlines are wrongly telling passengers they’re only eligible to receive credits or flight vouchers for future travel. The DOT clearly states that this is in direct violation of the contract of carriage (the legally binding agreement between airline and passenger on every flight). In their words:

“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 Department continues to view any contract of carriage provision or airline policy that purports to deny refunds to passengers when the carrier cancels a flight, makes a significant schedule change, or significantly delays a flight to be a violation of the carriers’ obligation that could subject the carrier to an enforcement action.”

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In short, if your flight is canceled or heavily delayed, you are entitled to a refund. Period. Any airline denying passengers anything other than a full refund is violating the law. The key question, of course, is whether your particular situation warrants a refund, a voucher, or neither. Let’s look at a few common scenarios:

If you purchased your ticket through the airline directly and the airline canceled your flight: You’re entitled to a refund according to your original payment. This applies to flights from and within the United States, the European Union, and the United Kingdom. Sadly, the Canadian government sided with airlines on this. Ticketed passengers with plans to fly within Canada are out of luck.

If you purchased your ticket through the airline directly, but you can’t or choose not to fly: Legally speaking, airlines are within their rights to offer a voucher and nothing more. In light of the pandemic, many have relaxed their traditionally rigid change or cancellation policies to allow passengers to request a refund. It’s entirely up to the airline. These policies are changing on an almost daily basis, so the best thing to do in this situation is to check with the airline directly. It may pay to wait as long as possible. With many states and cities extending or expanding stay-at-home orders, more and more routes are being canceled. If you can afford to wait and your unwanted flight is ultimately canceled, you may be entitled to a full refund.

If you purchased your ticket through a third-party booking site: This complicates things a little, but not much. Typically, flights booked through sites like Expedia and Orbitz are challenging to change or cancel. The ongoing pandemic has changed that, however. Most airlines are treating tickets purchased through third-party sites as if they were booked directly with the airline. Whether the airline cancels your flight or you opt not to fly — even with a third-party booking — the same rules above should apply.

How to Secure Your Flight Refund

Your first course of action is to try canceling or changing your travel plans directly through the airline’s website. Historically, many have intentionally made this process tedious as it’s in their best interest to make it as difficult as possible by forcing you to pick up the phone and call. Right now, however, many customers are reporting hold times of hours or more. If you find this to be the case, reach out to the airline through Twitter. Most major airlines field customer service requests and complaints directly through Twitter, and sometimes the response can be almost immediate.

If your airline is especially stubborn in not caving to your demands, feel free to quote the customer service agent the DOT memo listed above. Threaten to file a formal complaint with the Department of Transporation, if necessary. The department’s word is final, and they take customer complaints seriously. If all else fails, you can always dispute the charge with your credit card company.

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