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Senators demand airlines offer refunds, extend expiration dates of pandemic vouchers

May 10, 2021
5 min read
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Senators demand airlines offer refunds, extend expiration dates of pandemic vouchers
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U.S. airline customers are sitting on more than 20 million expiring airline vouchers and flight credits worth more than a combined $10 billion. Now, two U.S. senators are demanding that airlines waive those expiration dates for all credits issued during the pandemic.

Sens. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) co-signed a letter to each of the major U.S.-based airlines on Monday, demanding that airlines either offer cash refunds instead of vouchers, or extend the expiration dates to give passengers more time to use them.

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"In light of the ongoing pandemic and looming expiration dates for flight credits, we fear that countless consumers will be unable to redeem their flight credits or will redeem them at a loss," the senators wrote in the letter, which was shared with TPG. "Worse, without removing expiration dates, your company may be encouraging travelers to fly before they feel safe boarding a plane, lest they lose tickets that they have already purchased with hard-earned dollars."

The demands which come with come after the federal government provided more than $50 billion in air for the struggling airline industry during the pandemic.

The senators also introduced legislation that would require major airlines and third-party ticket sellers to offer full cash refunds for all cancelled tickets during the coronavirus pandemic, though the prospects for such a bill are unclear.

Either way, it's far from the first time during the pandemic that vouchers have been in the news — or that Markey and Blumenthal have confronted the airlines about the topic.

Although airlines largely waived change fees when the pandemic began to shut down global travel — and have since decided to waive them permanently, aside from trips booked in basic economy — they stopped short of providing cash refunds for unused tickets.

More: How to use outstanding airline vouchers before they expire

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Even in cases where they were required to make refunds available, such as instances when the airline itself canceled a flight, the carriers attempted to steer customers to opt for flight credits, prompting several warnings from the Department of Transportation.

Over the course of the pandemic, the biggest four airlines — American, Delta, Southwest and United — had issued around 21.5 million credits and vouchers, worth a combined $10.4 billion, a previous analysis by TPG found. The value of vouchers issued by smaller commercial carriers, including JetBlue and Alaska, were typically under $1 billion each.

Some of those credits and vouchers are being put to work, tying up airline reservation phone lines as customers try to determine the best way to use the credits before they expire. During United's earnings call with investors in April, chief operating officer Andrew Nocella said that about 12% of all new tickets for travel with United were being purchased with credits.

Despite airlines typically allowing credits and vouchers to be redeemed online, policies can be confusing — especially with new pandemic-era policies — and passengers may have multiple credits that are complicated or unable to be combined.

More: How to use outstanding airline vouchers before they expire

In the letter, the senators repeated previous calls for airlines to provide cash refunds for flights canceled during the pandemic, or to at least stop the credits from expiring.

"We must first reiterate our belief that your airline should offer a cash refund for all tickets on flights canceled during the coronavirus pandemic, whether canceled by the airline or traveler," Markey and Blumenthal wrote. "However, even as we continue to push for these cash refunds, it is imperative that, at a minimum, your company does not subject pandemic-related flight credits to an expiration date."

The letter called on airlines to provide the senators with answers to a series of questions by May 28. Copies of the letter were sent to American, Delta, United, Southwest, Allegiant, Alaska, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue and Spirit.

If you have vouchers or credits that are set to expire, you may have a few options — and some airlines have already issued one-time extensions.

More: Travelers are sitting on more than $10 billion in airline credits — here’s what do to do before they expire

United, for example, issues “travel certificates” and “future flight credits.” According to a representative for the airline, credits issued for tickets issued between May 1, 2019, and March 31, 2021, will be valid through March 31, 2022. Tickets purchased April 1, 2021, and later will be valid for 12 months from purchase.

At American, on the other hand, “flight credits” must be used within a year of the issue date, although any credits set to expire before March 31, 2021 have been extended to the March 31, 2022. “Vouchers,” on the other hand, must be used within a year of issue.

Be sure to check out our list of major US airline voucher and credit policies, and how to use them.

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