United, Hawaiian improved refund policies this summer. Others didn't, and it showed.
We've now been in the midst of the pandemic for nearly seven months.
When the coronavirus first came stateside, governments were quick to impose lockdowns and quarantines. This suddenly halted the economy — and brought travel to a near standstill.
As airlines began adjusting to the new normal, many tightened their refund policies. Some of the newly restrictive rules were at odds with the Department of Transporation's (DOT) mandate that airlines must refund your ticket if they cancel your flight.
Fortunately, after multiple enforcement notices, airlines started recognizing there wasn't an easy "out." Many restored their pre-pandemic refund rules over the summer.
With the latest refund-related complaint data from the DOT, let's take a look at how passengers fared during the peak of summer — July 2020.
Sign up for TPG’s free new biweekly Aviation newsletter for more airline-specific news!
U.S. refund complaints were down, international went up
July is usually one of the busiest months for leisure travel.
Even before the pandemic, many families likely had flights booked for the summer. When it came time to "throw in the towel," getting a refund from a U.S.-based carrier was much easier than in previous months.
While the number of total refund-related complaints was down 30% compared to June, those regarding domestic carriers fell most — by 37%.
On the other hand, complaints about foreign carriers declined by 28% and comprised nearly 55% of the total number of refund-related complaints the DOT received in July.
These numbers make sense. As we'll see below, domestic carriers got significantly better at refunding canceled flights. Meanwhile, summer is usually prime time for a cross-border trip, and select international carriers still restricted refunds for canceled flights.
Related: You can get your money back if an airline changed its refund policy
United improved significantly
After a string of customer-unfriendly updates to its schedule change policy, United finally relented. On June 6, the Chicago-based carrier finally restored its pre-pandemic policy — you're eligible for a refund for changes of two or more hours.
This undoubtedly made it much easier for flyers to get their money back. The proof is in the data.
For the first full month of the new United policy, the number of refund-related complaints per 100,000 enplanements dropped by 70% — from 193.3 in June to 57.1 in July. Clearly, customer service representatives got the message and were much better at refunding canceled and significantly rescheduled flights.
Hawaiian also improved drastically
United wasn't the only carrier to tighten its refund policy. Honolulu-based Hawaiian Airlines did too.
Like United, the carrier restricted refunds to schedule changes of six or more hours. This made it much harder for passengers to get their money back for rescheduled flights.
In earlier months, flyers complained to the DOT to intervene. But in July, the number of refund-related complaints per 100,000 enplanements dropped by 75% — from 270 in June to 68 in July.
On June 30, Hawaiian relented and went back to refunding changes of two or more hours. July was the first full month with the new policy, and customers clearly had an easier time securing refunds.
Related: Why you should wait to change or cancel your flight if you want your money back
Flyers still had trouble with Frontier
Throughout the pandemic, getting a refund for a canceled Frontier flight has proven to be a challenge.
For one, the carrier isn't great about disclosing that you're entitled to one if your flight is canceled. Instead, Frontier proactively offers future travel vouchers that expire within 90 days.
Understandably, customers aren't happy, and it shows. The U.S. airline with the highest number of refund-related complaints per 100,000 enplanements in July was Frontier.
International carriers were the strictest
While many had high hopes to travel the globe this summer, the pandemic kept most grounded. In some cases, airlines shut down too.
Israel's flag carrier, El Al, remained grounded throughout the summer. As part of the shutdown, customer service centers were closed and refunds weren't processed.
Customers clearly weren't happy. The DOT received 733 refund-related complaints about El Al in July — the most of any international carrier.
Air Canada continued to skirt the DOT rules for providing refunds for canceled flights. Throughout the pandemic, the airline has exclusively offered vouchers for canceled flights. It's little surprise then that the airline was subject to 652 refund-related complaints in July.
Finally, TAP Air Portugal has also been one of the strictest about refunds. The DOT received 611 refund-related complaints in July about the Portuguese flag carrier. For months, TAP stopped flying to the U.S. and only offered vouchers for canceled flights.
The wait times to speak to a customer service agent have topped three hours, and many flyers have only been successful in getting their money back after filing a complaint with the DOT.
Getting a refund for a canceled flight started getting easier this summer. In July, the number of refund-related complaints regarding U.S.-based airlines declined across the board.
Hawaiian and United dropped their restrictive policies, while the competition continued to largely play by the rules.
The real struggle was with international carriers. Three select airlines — Air Canada, El Al and TAP — accounted for 35% of refund-related complaint volume.
Either way, as travel continues to recover, getting a refund for canceled flights will hopefully become less of an issue in the coming months.
For more about refunds, see: