US airlines required to refund flights cancelled over coronavirus

Apr 6 2020, 1:58 pm

The United States Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a formal Enforcement Notice on Friday, outlining the regulations surrounding refunds issued for flights impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.

According to the notice, all US and foreign airlines must supply refunds to customers for any flight “to, within, or from the United States” that was cancelled or experienced significant schedule adjustments due to coronavirus pandemic.

Many airlines have dramatically cut their travel schedules, suspended service, and issued wide-sweeping layoffs due to the ongoing financial impacts resulting from the pandemic.

These decisions have left passengers with cancelled or substantially delayed flights, receiving only vouchers or credits towards future trips that do not qualify for immediate use.

The responsibility of airlines to issue refunds, including the price of tickets as well as any optional fees incurred for services that passengers were not able to use, remains with the airline whether or not the disruptions were outside of its control, such as government restrictions, the notice explains.

“The Department is receiving an increasing number of complaints and inquiries from ticketed passengers, including many with non-refundable tickets, who describe having been denied refunds for flights that were canceled or significantly delayed,” a post on the department’s website explains.

Because the coronavirus pandemic has had such an unprecedented impact on air travel, the DOT’s Aviation Enforcement Office will provide airlines with the opportunity to “become compliant” before proceeding with additional measures.

“The focus is not on whether the flight disruptions are within or outside the carrier’s control, but rather the fact that the cancelation is through no fault of the passenger,” the DOT wrote.

The Aviation Enforcement Office will not enforce action against carriers that issued travel vouchers instead of refunds in the following instances:

  • The airline promptly contacts passengers who have already received vouchers and informs them that they are entitled to the alternate option of a full refund.
  • The airline updates its “refund policy and contract of carriage provisions” to clarify that it provides refunds to passengers should they cancel a flight or make significant schedule alterations.
  • The airline reviews policies with staff, including “preservationists, ticket counter agents, refund personnel, and other customer service professionals” to clarify which circumstances warrant issuing refunds.

The Aviation Enforcement Office will continue to keep an eye on the refund policies of airlines to determine whether intervention and enforcement action is warranted, the notice concludes.