The Department of Transportation rereleased a notice asking airlines to refund passengers for canceled flights and answering frequently asked questions from consumers. The second warning comes after the department received more than 25,000 complaints and inquiries in April.
The DOT reports that they typically receive roughly 1,500 air travel complaints a month.
“The Department has received an unprecedented volume of complaints from passengers and is examining this issue closely to ensure that airlines’ policies and practices conform to DOT’s refund rules,” U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao said in a statement. “The department is asking all airlines to revisit their customer service policies and ensure they are as flexible and considerate as possible to the needs of passengers who face financial hardship during this time.”
Airlines are required to refund travelers “if their flight is canceled or significantly changed by the airline,” per an earlier warning from the DOT in April. However, what constitutes a “significant change” is left to the airlines to decide. In most cases, airlines will look to change flights or issue credits before turning to refund customers.
According to USA Today, special provisions from the DOT during public health emergencies, winter storms, hurricanes, or similar events, say that passengers are eligible for a refund even on non-refundable tickets. Furthermore, those refunds must be provided within seven business days for card payments and within twenty days for cash or check.
While airlines must maintain a certain level of service as a condition of receiving stimulus from Congress, some are continuing to cancel flights along less busy routes. Regardless of declining consumer options, inconsistent refunding practices remain a sticking point.
For many consumers, as incomes fall and prices for some essential goods rise, the need for immediate cash is greater than future flight credits, especially with so much uncertainty surrounding future air travel.
“They are receiving no cash refunds from canceled flights because they are given misleading and sometimes deceptive responses when they go to claim those cash refunds,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing last week. “Instead they are given vouchers of questionable value. They need that cash in their pockets to put food on the table, and pay their rent and utilities. They feel betrayed.”
The Washington Post reports that an investigation from a group of lawmakers, including Blumenthal, estimates that carriers could be holding up to $10 billion in consumer cash, which they say could significantly assist those consumers due refunds.
Nicholas Calio, president and CEO of industry trade group Airlines for America, said that airlines understand the DOTs protections for consumers.
“If a passenger under current law and regulation is entitled to a cash refund, they are getting it,” Calio said. However, the massive volume of complaints appears to show otherwise.
Consumers who feel they are unfairly compensated for flight changes due to COVID-19 can directly file a complaint or inquiry with the DOT here.