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2 US airlines are defying refund rules for canceled flights — here's how to get yours anyway

May 11, 2020
6 min read
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Ever since taking over the change and cancellation beat for TPG, I've received tons of reader emails and Instagram messages with individual questions.

After a few weeks, a pattern was emerging — I kept receiving similar inquiries about the same few airlines. Readers heeded my advice to wait until the last minute to cancel their flights. Once they finally received notice that the carrier made an involuntary change or cancellation, only then did the reader reach out to the airline to ask for their money back.

This did the trick with most carriers, but two airlines have been incredibly stringy about refunds. Hawaiian and United are seemingly skirting the rules set forth by the Department of Transportation by denying refunds for canceled flights.

Let's take a deeper look at what's going on, and discuss the strategy to get the refund you deserve.

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Refund rules for canceled flights

By now, readers should know that they are entitled to refunds when an airline cancels your flight. This is based on a Department of Transportation rule which applies to all domestic and international flights that depart or arrive in the U.S.

It says that if your flight is cancelled and you choose to cancel your trip as a result, you are entitled to a refund for the unused transportation – even for non-refundable tickets.

For a while, there was some uncertainty about whether the DOT would uphold this rule in light of the unprecedented number of flight cancellations we've seen due to the coronavirus pandemic. Ultimately, it did, sending a stern warning letter to the airlines.

American Airlines planes at LaGuardia (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

This warning was enough to get JetBlue to rescind what had been the strictest refund policy we'd seen from all U.S. airlines. But it wasn't enough to get Hawaiian and United to back down.

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The latter two carriers have totally reimagined the meaning of a canceled flight, making it much harder for readers to get the refunds that they are legally entitled to.

Hawaiian Airlines refund policy

Though the DOT is clear on its refund regulations in the event an airline cancels a flight, Hawaiian has decided to add some terms to what constitutes a flight cancellation.

Hawaiian Airlines 717 (Photo courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines)

Specifically, the Honolulu-based carrier now says that a canceled flight means one that is no longer on the schedule, and the carrier can't reaccommodate you on another flight within six hours of departure or arrival of your originally scheduled flight.

Related: Why you should wait until the last minute to get a refund for your flight

Per an update to its domestic contract of carriage, Hawaiian now claims the following:

A cancellation caused by Hawaiian means (i) that a particular flight number for which you have a ticketed reservation is removed from our schedule or will not operate on one or more dates and (ii) we are unable to confirm you on an alternate flight(s) scheduled to depart within 6 hours before or after your originally scheduled departure time and arrive within 6 hours before or after your originally scheduled arrival time.  In this event, the receipt of a refund in lieu of travel credit is in your sole discretion if you refuse to be rebooked on another flight.

This means that Hawaiian will not refund you for a flight it cancels, so long as it can find you an alternate flight within six hours of your originally booked flight.

Perhaps more egregiously, the carrier is giving restrictive travel credit for flights it cancels and can't be reaccommodated within six hours. The travel credit can only be used by the originally ticketed passenger, and must be used in one transaction.

Related: Why you should think twice before accepting an airline voucher

That means if you rebook a flight later on that's cheaper than your original flight, you forfeit the difference — even though it was Hawaiian that originally canceled the flight!

United Airlines refund policy

It isn't just Hawaiian that's redefining the meaning of canceled. United is doing the same thing too. In fact, it has the exact same policy.

In its detailed schedule-change policy, United states that the following flights are eligible for refunds:

Change to originally scheduled arrival or departure time of greater than 6 hours or canceled flight with no protection.

That means that if United finds a replacement flight to a flight it cancels (even with a new flight number), the carrier won't give you a refund unless the change is six hours or greater.

Related: How to change or cancel a United Airlines flight

This is especially frustrating to customers who might've booked some of United's high-frequency routes between two hubs like Newark to Chicago. Even though the carrier has slashed most of its New York area schedule, there's still a good chance that there's a flight within six hours of your original flight.

What can you do to get a refund?

Just because Hawaiian and United have added these new terms to getting a refund for a flight they cancel doesn't mean you can't get your money back. It's just going to be a bit harder.

Related: How to refund a nonrefundable airline ticket

After the airline denies a refund request for a flight it canceled, you should reach out to your credit card company to dispute the charge.

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

Additionally, you should also file a consumer complaint with the DOT. This will help alert the agency to the violations, which can lead to enforcement actions against the carrier should the DOT determine that the airline is acting unlawfully. Plus, the airline needs to formally respond to passengers filing a DOT complaint, so you'll be guaranteed to get a response this way.

Bottom line

Most carriers are complying with the DOT policy that states that airlines must give your money back when they cancel a flight. But Hawaiian and United are being particularly intractable, since they typically won't process a refund for a canceled flight if you're reaccommodated within six hours of your originally scheduled flight.

If you feel that an airline is violating the DOT rule, you should consider disputing the charge with your credit card company and filing a formal complaint with the DOT. After all, you are entitled to a refund when an airline cancels your flight.

This post has been updated to reflect that filing a complaint with the DOT is referred to as a consumer complaint.

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The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

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  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
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  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
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  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023