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Latest data shows which US airlines have been the stingiest about refunds

June 07, 2020
5 min read
United Boeing 777 Zach Griff - 1
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When the coronavirus came stateside, many travelers scrambled to cancel or postpone upcoming trips.

Some people took future travel credit under relaxed change-fee waivers, but others wanted their money back instead. Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has a clear-cut policy: you are entitled to a refund when an airline cancels your flight. And when demand for travel plummeted in March, airlines began slashing their schedules and canceling flights.

If you waited until a few days before departure, odds are that your flight would be canceled and you'd be eligible for a refund according to the DOT rules. However, some airlines came up with creative excuses to keep your money.

Savvy travelers know that if an airline denies a refund request, the next move is to consider a credit card chargeback, as well as filing a consumer complaint with the DOT.

Each month the DOT aggregates the complaints and publishes an Air Travel Consumer Report. May's report includes complaint data from March, so let's take a look at which airlines followed the rules — and which didn't.

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The majority of flyers complained about refunds

Before diving into each airline's performance, it shouldn't come as a surprise that most of the complaints that the DOT received in March were about refunds. Of the complaints, refund-related issues comprised 54% of the total. If you look at complaints strictly related to U.S. airlines, that proportion jumps to 64%.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Relative to March 2019, the number of refund complaints filed in March 2020 jumped by a whopping 1,561%!

None of this should come as much of a surprise. Travel came to a standstill in mid-March, and that's when most customers started complaining about airlines not giving them refunds. I wouldn't be surprised to see these percentages jump even higher in later months.

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Related: You can get your money back if an airline changed its refund policy

American and Delta were great about granting refunds

Ever since taking over the change and cancellation beat for TPG, I've received countless emails and Instagram messages from frustrated readers who've had trouble getting refunds from a slew of carriers. Of the U.S. airlines, I've received the least number of inquiries regarding American Airlines and Delta.

In fact, in our research, these two carriers have also been the fastest and most communicative about refunds. Neither carrier changed their policy mid-pandemic, nor did they proactively give travel credits instead of refunds.

Indeed, the DOT complaint data from March aligns with our experience. The DOT received 71 refund complaints about Delta and 138 about American Airlines. When normalizing these numbers, that's just about 1 complaint per 100,000 enplanements for Delta and 2 complaints per 100,000 enplanements for American.

United was the stingiest of the major U.S. carriers

If you're a United flyer, odds are that you've had trouble getting a refund from the Chicago-based carrier. That's because UA made countless adjustments to its schedule change policy throughout the pandemic. Before the coronavirus hit, you could get a refund when your flight was changed by more than two hours.

Throughout March and into April, United kept adjusting what time change qualifies for a refund. It went up to 25 hours, then went to an undefined "significant" change and then finally went down to six hours. UA applied these changes retroactively as well, rankling many customers.

Looking at the data, United received 14x (!) more complaints regarding refunds than Delta. In absolute terms, the DOT got 640 refund-related complaints about United, which translates to just over 14 complaints per 100,000 enplanements.

I'm sure that this number will skyrocket in the April complaint data, especially since the DOT has stated that they've received an "unprecedented" spike in refund complaints.

United 737 at Newark (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Fortunately, United finally relented on Saturday, June 6, and is back to issuing refunds for flights changed by two or more hours.

Related: Why you should wait to change or cancel your flight if you want your money back

Low-cost carriers weren't as bad as United

You might think that Frontier or Sprit — two of the nation's largest ultra-low-cost carriers — would be stingier than United. Turns out, that's not the case based on the DOT data.

Frontier and Spirit received 94 and 80 refund-related complaints, respectively. Normalizing for passengers flown, that's 8 and 4 complaints per 100,000 enplanements.

This is noticeably more than American or Delta, but significantly less than United. In fact, TPG's Summer Hull was even able to get a refund from Spirit via text message.

Bottom line

When your flight is canceled, you're entitled to a refund. But just because you are eligible to get your money back doesn't mean the airlines are making it easy.

According to the DOT data, United's been the stingiest about providing refunds, which aligns with our experience. What else do you expect when the carrier made five changes to its schedule change policy over the course of a month?

Of the major U.S. carriers, American and Delta have been quite easy to deal with, and none of the low-cost carriers have been as bad as United.

For more about refunds, see: