The DOT wants to make it easier to get a refund for delayed flights

Aug 3, 2022

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After a summer of delays, cancellations, and all-around travel misery, the federal Department of Transportation is proposing a new set of rules that would make it easier for air travelers to get refunds.

Travelers are already entitled to refunds for flights canceled by the airline, as well as for flights that are “significantly” delayed or changed after booking.

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Until now, however, the DOT has never defined what constitutes a “significant” delay or change, leaving it to airlines to voluntarily self-regulate — or in some cases, continue rolling delays of a flight rather than canceling it.

Under the new rules, a “significant delay” would be defined as one that affects the departure or arrival time of a domestic flight by three hours or more, or an international flight by at least six hours.

A “significant change” would include one that changes the departure or arrival airport or adds more connections to an itinerary than what was originally booked. Interestingly, it would also include changes to the aircraft type “if it causes a significant downgrade in the air travel experience or amenities available onboard the flight.”

The proposed rules come after a surge in consumer complaints since the pandemic began, which intensified this spring as airlines struggled with staffing challenges and weather issues despite selling aggressive schedules. Of 4,344 complaints about airlines received by the DOT in May, 1,326 (30.5%) were about refunds, the agency said.

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has been increasingly vocal about these issues throughout the spring and early summer, criticizing airlines for poor performance and suggesting it would prompt future action by the DOT. Airlines, meanwhile, have alternated between apologizing to customers and pointing to issues with the national air traffic control system (air traffic control falls under the Federal Aviation Administration, a branch of the federal DOT).

“When Americans buy an airline ticket, they should get to their destination safely, reliably, and affordably,” Buttigieg said in a statement. “This new proposed rule would protect the rights of travelers and help ensure they get the timely refunds they deserve from the airlines.”

The proposed rules would also prohibit expiration dates on flight credits issued under certain pandemic conditions, such as closed borders or health concerns. Most airline flight credits expire within a year of purchase, although Southwest recently removed all expiration dates from its flight credits.

Additionally, airlines that receive federal aid linked to a pandemic would be required to issue cash refunds instead of vouchers, the DOT said. While no airlines publicly disclosed the details surrounding their issued flight credits during the pandemic, a TPG analysis in March, 2021 found that the major airlines had issued approximately 20 million vouchers in 2020, worth around a combined $10.4 billion.

The new rules proposal is now open to public commentary for 90 days.

Featured photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images.

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