How to Force Refunds for Your Cancelled Flights: COVID-19
If your airline cancelled your flight or significantly changed your flight itinerary, you are usually due or offered a refund. However, as airlines now in survival mode due to the Coronavirus pandemic, many airlines have been refusing refunds as they want to hang on to as much cash as possible. So, instead of refunds, airlines try to force customers to accept vouchers or travel credits. While that works for some, many would prefer to have their money back, especially during uncertain times like these.
One of the worst airlines during this crisis have been United and JetBlue. United amended their schedule change policy from offering a refund for any schedule change in your itinerary by 2+ hours to 25+ hours, before finally reducing it to 6+ hours but keeping your money for 1 full year before you can get your money back. As recently as Friday, JetBlue changed their schedule change refund policy to 24+ hours. As you can see, it’s near impossible to get your money back instantly even if your itineraries are cancelled by the airline.
DOT Drops the Hammer
That was until midday Friday. On April 3, the Department of Transportation made it clear that the airlines have to refund customers when flights are cancelled by the airline, even if it is for reasons outside of airline’s control. This is important, because that has been the reason airlines use to refuse refunds: The government travel restrictions / border closures forced the flights to be cancelled, and the airlines have no choice but to cancel flights as a result.
See DOT’s enforcement notice below (https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/enforcement_notice_refunds_apr_3_2020):
Carriers have a longstanding obligation to provide a prompt refund to a ticketed passenger when the
carrier cancels the passenger’s flight or makes a significant change in the flight schedule and the
passenger chooses not to accept the alternative offered by the carrier. 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 focus is not on whether the flight disruptions are within or outside the carrier’s control, but rather on the fact that the cancellation is through no fault of the passenger. Accordingly, 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.
Note that this applies to all US airlines and foreign airlines as long as your itinerary contains a flight within, to, or from the United States.
Airlines Are Now Refunding, But Offer Bonus If You Take Vouchers
Now that the DOT has weighed in, airlines are beginning to refund passengers. As per Gary Leff, JetBlue promptly processed his refund as soon as he referenced the DOT’s new enforcement notice:
As for United, FlyerTalk posters are indicating United is now processing refunds as well. It is also important to note that United has also extended validity of their electronic travel certificates (ETC) to 24 months, probably as an effort to entice people to accept credits instead of cash refund.
Some airlines, like American Airlines, are offering a 20% bonus for those who accept credits instead of cash refund. While that can seem attractive, you should only consider that if your ticket is of significant value. As a quick example, 20% bonus of a $60 ticket is only $12 while a $1,500 ticket would net you a $300 bonus. Also, don’t forget that some airlines will not allow you to combine travel certificates / vouchers from multiple reservations. So say you cancelled 10 reservations, you now have to book another 10 reservations (and with expiration in mind). Will you have enough trips planned in the future? Also given the uncertainty road ahead for airlines and travel industry as a whole as a result from this pandemic, would you not prefer to have your cash now?
Bottom Line, How Do I Get My Refund?
First, it is extremely important that you wait until the airline actually cancels the flight(s) on your itinerary before you call. If the airline has not yet removed your flights from their schedule and you call to cancel, that would be considered a voluntary cancellation, and you would not be eligible for a refund! Now, airlines know this and are not cancelling flights until the last possible moment (even on the same day), so it is up to you to monitor your reservation diligently until your flight is actually cancelled, and then call up the airline immediately to request a refund.
If you are still receiving push back from the airline agent, cite the DOT enforcement notice and threaten to file a DOT complaint (also document the phone call if you can legally do so). If they still refuse, either escalate to a supervisor or hang up and call back. You can also try to contact airlines via Twitter (but expect a delay in response) or email if you are not due to fly imminently.
Finally, if you have exhausted all your avenues and you are still refused a refund, it is time to actually file a DOT complaint, and you may even want to do a chargeback with your credit card company.