DOT to airlines: Refunds are not optional for canceled flights

Apr 3, 2020

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

The Department of Transportation issued a stark message to airlines that serve the U.S. Friday, reminding carriers that they must provide cash refunds to travelers whose flights are canceled by the airline.

Even the title of the missive was weighty. In its “enforcement notice,” the DOT said “carriers have a longstanding obligation to provide a prompt refund to a ticketed passenger when the carrier cancels the passenger’s flight or makes a significant change in the flight schedule and the passenger chooses not to accept the alternative offered by the carrier.”

Sign up for the free daily TPG newsletter for more airline news.

Demand for air travel has plummeted as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and airlines around the world have been strapped for cash as they try to maintain their payrolls and meet other operating expenses even as revenue dries up. As a result, many carriers have tried to hold onto cash by issuing vouchers for future travel — instead of refunds — when they have canceled flights.

Related: Airline coronavirus waivers. 

That shift has drawn an increasing number of complaints from consumers. Underscoring the growing attention on the issue, a group of U.S. senators weighed in on the subject this week in open letters to airlines executives that implored them to change those policies.

Now, the DOT is making it clear that even the extraordinary circumstances created by the COIVD-19 pandemic are no excuse for airlines to flout the law and that their doing so has not gone unnoticed.

Related: 5 things to know about the $50 billion coronavirus aid package for airlines.

“The obligation of airlines to provide refunds, including the ticket price and any optional fee charged for services a passenger is unable to use, does not cease when the flight disruptions are outside of the carrier’s control (e.g., a result of government restrictions),” the department said in a statement. “The Aviation Enforcement Office will monitor airlines’ refund policies and practices and take enforcement action as necessary.”

The refund regulations apply even when just one segment of an itinerary is canceled, so long as every leg is on the same ticket.

“The requirement to refund passengers includes refunding all unused segments of a single ticket when a carrier cancels or makes a significant change to one or more segment of the passenger’s itinerary, and the passenger chooses not to travel,” a DOT spokeswoman said in an email.

The DOT’s refund regulations cover only involuntary cancellations made by the airline. Itineraries that are preemptively canceled by a passenger are not.

In Friday’s statement, the department did recognize that airlines may struggle to comply immediately with its rules. In its memo, the agency suggested that there would be some leeway in enforcement to give carriers time to get in line, though it did not specify exactly how much slack airlines might get. For now, carriers have been told to contact customers who have been given vouchers for canceled flights to let them know they have an option for a refund.

With the warning issued Friday, a number of airlines might want to reconsider their existing policies.

Among them is JetBlue. It recently announced a “temporary” policy that would bar passengers from a refund even if their flight is canceled, so long as the carrier could accommodate them within 24 hours of their originally scheduled itinerary.

That policy is only in effect until April 15, but it’s unclear whether the DOT would tolerate even a temporary move not to follow its refund rules.

United also has drawn criticism for making refunds harder to get during coronavirus. Most recently, the airline said it would only issue travel credits for itineraries that would usually qualify for refunds, and those credits would become refundable if they went unused after a year.

And, on the international front, Air France and KLM, citing “the high degree of uncertainty surrounding air transportation and the vast number of requests for refunds,” have said they would not issue refunds for canceled flights during coronavirus. Those carriers will likely now have to adjust that policy, at least on their services to and from the U.S., following the DOT’s new guidance.

Read more: TSA screenings reflect the travel slump.

Featured photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

WELCOME OFFER: 80,000 Points


CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 2X points on all travel and dining, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners

*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,000 when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. Plus earn up to $50 in statement credits towards grocery store purchases within your first year of account opening.
  • Earn 2X points on dining including eligible delivery services, takeout and dining out and travel. Plus, earn 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,000 toward travel.
  • With Pay Yourself Back℠, your points are worth 25% more during the current offer when you redeem them for statement credits against existing purchases in select, rotating categories.
  • Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on eligible orders over $12 for a minimum of one year with DashPass, DoorDash's subscription service. Activate by 12/31/21.
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more.
  • Get up to $60 back on an eligible Peloton Digital or All-Access Membership through 12/31/2021, and get full access to their workout library through the Peloton app, including cardio, running, strength, yoga, and more. Take classes using a phone, tablet, or TV. No fitness equipment is required.
Regular APR
15.99%-22.99% Variable
Annual Fee
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
Recommended Credit

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.