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Some airlines got better at giving refunds as summer began; many others didn't

Sept. 18, 2020
7 min read
United Boeing 777 Zach Griff - 1
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When the pandemic first came stateside, would-be flyers heeded the myriad of stay-at-home and quarantine orders.

That led to an unprecedented number of voluntary cancellations and changes to upcoming travel plans. In addition, airlines adjusted to the new reality by slashing flights and reducing frequencies.

When an airline cancels or “significantly” changes your flight, you're entitled to a refund. (When you make a voluntary cancellation, the best you can hope for is a credit for future use.) But just because you're entitled to a refund doesn't mean the airlines have made it particularly easy to get your money back.

Each month, the Department of Transportation (DOT) releases data on how many complaints they've received from passengers, including disgruntled travelers seeking refunds. On Friday, Sept. 18, the DOT released data from June 2020, the latest month available. Let's take a look and see how airlines behaved during the beginning of the peak summer season.

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There were fewer refund-related complaints

Relative to May, there were nearly 30% fewer refund-related complaints submitted to the DOT. Though refunds still remained top-of-mind at nearly 93% of the total complaints the DOT received in June, the absolute number dropped month-over-month.

One possible explanation could be that passengers didn't have nearly as many upcoming travel plans booked for June when the pandemic hit. Another could be that once the pandemic hit, fewer passengers decided to make new reservations for the summer due to all the uncertainty about future travel. Either way, it's great to see that fewer people had issues getting refunds in June.

However, just because the total number of refund-related complaints dropped in June doesn't mean things were perfect. The proportion of complaints about international carriers actually grew month-over-month, from 48% to 53% of the total received. This increase is likely due to the seasonality of international travel — many more people fly abroad during the summer versus the spring.

Related: You are entitled to a refund for your canceled flight

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United improved dramatically

From the outset of the pandemic, United took a particularly customer-unfriendly approach to refunds. The Chicago-based carrier made more than four changes to its schedule change policy. As such, it's no surprise that the DOT had received a ton of refund-related complaints about United in April and May.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

But June painted a different picture. The number of refund-related complaints dropped by a whopping 54% month-over-month. On June 6, United relented and restored its pre-pandemic schedule change policy — making it much easier for customers to get refunds for canceled flights. As such, the sharp decrease makes sense — United clearly got better at giving people their money back.

Of the Big 3 U.S. carriers, the DOT received the most refund-related complaints about Delta. Though the Atlanta-based airline wasn't nearly as stingy as United, it was very hard to get in touch with a Delta representative during the summer. Plus, we've received reports from readers saying that their Delta refunds were taking nearly a month to be processed.

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

Frontier was the stingiest of the ultra-low-cost carriers

Of the ultra low-cost carriers (ULCCs), Frontier was the stingiest about refunds in June. The DOT received nearly 159 refund-related complaints per 100,000 Frontier enplanements.

Of all the major U.S. carriers, Frontier was the only airline for which the number of refund-related complaints increased from May to June. When Frontier cancels a flight, most passengers probably don't realize that you're entitled to a refund. That's because the airline's cancellation emails spend most of the text discussing a voucher option (that expires within 90 days). Only at the bottom in small print does the email offer a refund.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

And once you've accepted a voucher, you typically can't exchange it for a cash refund.

The DOT didn't receive nearly as many complaints about Allegiant and Spirit, the two other big U.S. ULCCs. The number of refund-related complaints received decreased by 35% and 43% month-over-month, respectively.

Related: 7 takeaways from my first Frontier Airlines flight in over 4 years

Hawaiian was the worst of the majors

Like United, Hawaiian also made some customer-unfriendly adjustments to its refund policy over the course of the last few months.

At the outset of the pandemic, the Honolulu-based carrier said that your flight needed to have been changed by six or more hours in order to qualify for a refund. Previously, the threshold was just two hours. Understandably, that irked many passengers.

And like United (again), Hawaiian relented on June 29 and went back to issuing refunds for changes or two or more hours.

But for most of June, it remained quite hard to get a refund from Hawaiian. As such, it's no surprise to see that the DOT received nearly 270 refund-related complaints per 100,000 Hawaiian enplanements — the highest of any major U.S. airline.

Getting a refund from an international carrier wasn't easy

With the peak summer season starting in June, many Americans like to travel abroad. But with seemingly endless border closures and a host of quarantine requirements, the summer of 2020 has looked quite different. If people traveled, most stayed close to home.

As such, if you had an international trip booked, odds are that you tried to get your money back. And unfortunately, based on the DOT data, it appears that lots of people had trouble getting a refund from international carriers.

For three consecutive months, one of the worst offenders has been Air Canada. The Montreal-based carrier has taken a harsh stance. The carrier will not give refunds for flights it cancels, seemingly violating the DOT policy. Refund-related complaints about Air Canada accounted for a whopping 13% of all complaints about international airlines in June.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Other notably stingy international carriers include El Al, Icelandair and TAP. El Al closed its call centers over the summer and delayed giving refunds until recently. The Israeli flag carrier accounted for nearly 7% of all refund-related complaints the DOT received about international carriers in June

Brian Kelly, TPG's founder and CEO, has had an outstanding refund request with Icelandair for over two months. He's not alone — 241 other passengers lodged similar complaints against the carrier in June.

Of course, another plausible reason for the increase in international-related complaints is the fact that many carriers restarted flying to the U.S. When an airline operates a flight, you're not entitled to a refund — despite whatever government restrictions may be in place.

Related: Air Canada still won't refund canceled U.S. flights

Bottom line

Based on the DOT complaint data for June, getting a refund for a canceled flight wasn't nearly as hard as it was in the spring.

Most notably, on June 6, United returned to issuing refunds for flights changed by two or more hours. As such, the number of complaints lodged against the airline dropped dramatically.

It was still a struggle to get a refund from Frontier and Hawaiian in June, but hopefully, those numbers will begin dropping in the coming months, as travel slowly recovers.

For more about refunds, see: