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Latest data shows which airlines have been the worst — and best — about refunds

Aug. 21, 2020
6 min read
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The recovery in the travel industry is going to take a while.

Until then, airlines will continue trimming their schedules and canceling flights to try to match supply with limited demand.

When an airline cancels or significantly changes your flight to, from or within the United States, you’re entitled to a refund — regardless of the reason for the cancellation.

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That’s thanks to U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) policy. When an airline violates the rule, one of the best courses of action is to file a consumer complaint with the DOT, as well as a credit card chargeback.

Each month, the DOT aggregates the complaints and publishes an Air Travel Consumer Report. July's report contains complaint data from May, so let’s take a deeper look at how the airlines behaved in the midst of the pandemic.

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Refund complaints were up, especially internationally

Relative to April, the number of complaints the DOT received rose by 10%. In and of itself, that's not necessarily surprising. May marks the early beginning of the summer season when many more leisure travelers typically take to the skies.

When you filter just for refund-related complaints, that increase jumps to 20%. If you break it down by domestic and international carriers, U.S.-based carriers accounted for just 2% of that increase. International carriers, however, drove the overall 20% increase with a 32% increase in the number of refund-related complaints.

Of course, this increase could be chalked up to the heightened demand for international flights during the summer. But when breaking it down by carrier, the data paints a bleaker picture.

United continued to skirt the rules

From the outset of the pandemic, United realized that it needed to conserve cash. To that end, it paused Polaris and Premium Plus retrofits and trimmed some of the premium-cabin amenities.

But perhaps the most egregious changes were the multitude of updates to the carrier's schedule change policy. United made it much harder to get a refund during the height of the pandemic, and only reverted back to its two-hour policy in early June.

Thus, it's no surprise to see refund-related complaints from United passengers increased 18% month-over-month. The DOT received 711 refund-related complaints per 100,000 systemwide enplanements on United.

Related: United’s back to issuing refunds for 2-hour schedule changes

Delta wasn't great about refunds either

Delta has been leading the industry with its response to the coronavirus. It even won the TPG award for the best U.S. airline of 2020 based on how it has handled the pandemic.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

But refund-related complaints from Delta passengers rose by nearly 30% from April to May. Unlike United, Delta only recently updated its schedule change policy in late July. As such, the increase in complaints could be accounted for by slower processing times, or the fact that it's been very hard to get in touch with a customer service representative.

Related: The best and worst airlines of 2020

Hawaiian said goodbye to refunds

Like United, Hawaiian Airlines made some customer-unfriendly updates to its schedule change policy. The Honolulu-based carrier made it much harder for flyers to get refunds.

As such, it's not shocking to see the carrier's refund-related complaints jump from just shy of 200 in April to nearly 400 in May. I'd expect that number to increase with the June data, as more and more would-be flyers canceled their summer trips to Hawaii. The number should decrease significantly in July since Hawaiian relented on June 29 — it's now back to issuing refunds for flights changed by two or more hours.

Related: Is Hawaii open for travel?

The low-cost carriers were better than April

You might be surprised to learn that the low-cost carriers actually received fewer refund-related complaints in May compared to April. Yes, the carriers that charge you for everything from bags to seats actually improved!

In fact, both Allegiant and Spirit saw a 45% and 47% decrease in the number of refund-related complaints, respectively. The carriers went from 149 and 365 complaints in April to 82 and 193 in May, respectively.

Having covered the change and cancellation beat for TPG since the outset of the pandemic, I'm not actually shocked by this decline. Though low-cost carriers have emphasized taking credits instead of refunds, they've been great about giving your money back when you know to ask for it.

Related: How I refunded a Spirit Airlines ticket in 2 minutes via text message

Air Canada and other foreign airlines continued to defy rules

Air Canada accounted for over 17% of all refund-related complaints about international carriers. And they deserve it.

Ever since the outset of the pandemic, the carrier has defied the DOT rule on refunding canceled flights. The Montreal-based carrier has a specific call-out on its website stating:

If you purchased a non-refundable fare, please note that in accordance with government regulations, non-refundable bookings that are cancelled due to the impacts of COVID-19, government travel advisories and/or health and safety concerns are outside of Air Canada’s control and ineligible for a refund.

Even though the Canadian Transportation Agency has relaxed its refund rules, the DOT hasn't. Hopefully, the agency will stay true to its policy by sending Air Canada an enforcement notice.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Air Canada isn't the only international carrier to defy the rules. For instance, El Al Israel Airlines received 205 refund-related complaints. That's because the Israeli flag carrier closed its contact centers and stopped issuing refunds for canceled flights.

TAP Air Portugal also continued to receive a high number of refund-related complaints in May. That's likely due to the fact that it continued flying many of its U.S. routes in May, meaning that you weren’t eligible for a refund (since the flight actually operated).

Bottom line

By now you should know that you’re entitled to a refund when your flight is canceled by the airline.

If an airline denies your eligible refund request, one of the next best courses of action is filing a DOT complaint. Each month, those complaints are tallied and reported by the agency.

In May, the number of refund-related complaints rose compared to April. United continued to skirt the rules, as did Hawaiian.

The low-cost carriers actually improved, while many international carriers like Air Canada continued being stingy.

Time will tell how the airlines performed in June, but hopefully, we’ll begin seeing fewer refund-related complaints as travel slowly begins to restart — and airlines scale back their customer-unfriendly policies.

For more about refunds, see:

Featured image by (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

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    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
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  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
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  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases