You might be able to get a refund for that flight you canceled after all

May 13, 2020

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It’s no secret that travelers have been canceling their trips in droves because of the coronavirus outbreak. For airline passengers, proactively canceling flights likely meant a voucher for future travel — but no refund.

While flyers are entitled to refunds if the airline canceled their flights, no such protections apply to cancellations made by the passenger. Now, however, a group of Democratic senators wants to change that.

A bill introduced by Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) Wednesday would require airlines to provide cash refunds to all passengers during the COVID-19 pandemic — even those whose flights are still operating as scheduled — if the passenger has simply chosen not to travel.

“Deciding not to fly is the right choice for public health. Yet, when travelers proactively cancel their tickets, the airline industry only provides vouchers, not cash,” the senators said in a press release announcing the legislation.

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The bill comes on the heels of the U.S. Department of Transportation reminding airlines that they are required to provide refunds to customers when the carrier cancels a flight. However, as airlines face a historic drop in demand, they have been hesitant to provide cash refunds to passengers who voluntarily choose not to travel. Airlines have said providing refunds to all passengers could quickly lead to bankruptcy.

But Markey — whose legislation is co-sponsored by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) — said airlines have a “moral obligation” to provide refunds to all passengers in these strange times.

More: Airlines were hesitant to give refunds. Now they’re getting sued.

“Americans need cash in their pockets to pay for food, housing, and prescriptions, not temporary credits toward future travel,” Markey said in a statement. “In light of this pressing need, and an unprecedented multi-billion dollar bailout, it’s absolutely unconscionable that the airlines won’t give consumers their money back.”

If passed into law, the bill would require airlines and travel agents to provide cash refunds to passengers who choose not to travel during the pandemic. It would also compel those companies to notify travelers that they are entitled to a refund, even when vouchers are being offered. Many of the senators who co-signed the legislation had previously written to the major U.S. airline CEOs to demand they provide refunds to passengers voluntarily.

To cover the costs, Markey said airlines would be able to use government bailout money to pay for the refunds, so long as the funds weren’t specifically intended to support airline employee payroll. The legislation would retroactively apply to all tickets for travel on flights on or after March 1, meaning that even passengers who have already received a voucher would be allowed to convert that to a cash refund.

Related: 2 U.S. airlines are defying refund rules for canceled flights — here’s how to get yours anyway.

The regulations would remain in effect for 180 days after the national emergency declarations related to the pandemic were rescinded.

“We believe we have a tidal wave of outrage that is heading toward the airline industry,” Markey said in a virtual press conference on Wednesday. He said his legislation, which he is working to have included in the next round of coronavirus aid, could serve as a breakwater by allowing would-be travelers to recoup their money.

What you should know about flight cancellations and refunds

TPG has extensive coverage about receiving flight cancellations during the coronavirus pandemic. Whether you’re simply looking to understand your rights or seeking out more advanced advice, check out our archive of stories on the subject for more information.

Featured photo courtesy of United Airlines.

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