The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact around the world. And as countries have cycled between shutdowns and reopenings in a desperate bid to keep the virus contained, one of the hardest hit sectors has been the travel and tourism industry, specifically when it comes to travel by plane.
In its 2020 year-end report, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) revealed that the industry was forecast to lose $118 billion for the year, but cut losses to $38 billion in 2021. Compared to 2019, demand for travel in 2020 fell 65.9%—the sharpest decline in aviation history, according to IATA figures.
While the industry has seen a steady upward trend since its lowest point in April 2019, many airlines have had to make drastic moves to help salvage their businesses. Various airlines canceled flights at a record rate, some opted to ground a portion of their fleets, and others cut their routes amid plummeting demand.
As a consumer, it can be difficult to know what your rights are when your flight has been canceled by an airline—both during the pandemic and in normal times. But know this: If your flight is canceled and it starts, stops, or transits within the United States—no matter what—you are owed a refund. Learn the specifics of qualifying for a refund, how to get it, and the very few exceptions for when a refund is not required.
Some Refunds Are Required by Law
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) states that airlines have an “obligation to provide a refund to a ticketed passenger when the carrier cancels or significantly changes the passenger’s flight.” The catch is that the terms “significant change” and “cancellation” are not defined in regulation, therefore enabling airlines to circumvent DOT regulations by offering travel credits or other incentives instead of a direct refund.
When an Airline Offers to Rebook You
Airlines that have canceled your flight may offer to rebook you on a different flight. If this happens, the choice is yours whether you want to take it. If you accept the offer, the airline is considered to have fulfilled its contract of carriage and no refund is due. If, however, you decline the new flight, they still owe you what you initially paid, including all fees involved.
When there are Significant Delays or Schedule Changes
When it comes to significant flight delays or significant schedule changes, the laws are less clear, as airlines have a right to interpret what that means themselves.
Each airline handles this differently. Delta, for example, will offer a refund if a schedule change or flight delay is 120 minutes or more, or causes you to miss a connecting flight. United, meanwhile, will allow you to request a refund if a flight change modifies the departure or arrival time by 30 minutes. Before offering a refund though, the airline will first offer to rebook you or give credit for future use with the airline. In all cases, if you accept new flights or flight times, you will not be entitled to any refunds, per DOT law.
If an airline refuses to give you a refund for one of these issues, DOT can and will individually review and determine eligibility for refunds on a case-by-case basis.
Full Refund Means Full Refund
When the pandemic began and airlines were hemorrhaging money, they often got creative when it came time to compensate passengers for canceled flights. As a result, DOT sent out an enforcement notice reminding airlines of the laws regarding refunds, noting that complaints had skyrocketed from an average of 1,500 per month to 25,000 between the months of March and April 2020.
The notice also addressed that, according to complaints, many airlines had denied refunds or attempted to offer flight credit or a travel certificate in place of a refund. In the event that your flight is canceled, significantly delayed, or impacted by a significant schedule change, the airline is required to offer you a full refund, no matter what. And any airline offering flight credit in lieu of a refund due to the above reasons is in violation of the law, according to DOT.
In the case of an unexpected event, such as bad weather, the airline is not required to pay for accommodations, such as a hotel stay and food, but it must still refund your ticket. Even if you’re halfway through your flight and the delay is significant enough that you choose not to travel onward—the airline is still liable to refund you the unused portion of your ticket.
How to Get Your Refund
Some airlines, like Delta, proactively direct you to request a refund online, though in practice, it’s not usually that simple. Different airlines offer varying amounts of control over your ticket and its cancellation, sometimes making it difficult to receive the full refund to which you are entitled. The best and most effective way to have your money returned is by calling the airline directly.
In general when asking for a refund, the most important thing is to know your rights. If you are uninformed, there’s a chance you could get stuck with a nontransferable certificate with an expiration date rather than the money you are due.
Keep the DOT resource page in front of you and remind the airline that a refund is the law. If need be, ask to be transferred to a manager.
When you call the airline, give the person on the other line your flight information, including your booking code and last name, so they can pull up your record. If the flight has been canceled—as in, you did not cancel your flight, it was an involuntary cancellation—the airline owes you a refund. If the airline representative pushes back against your request, do not be afraid to assert your rights.
If the airline continues to refuse your request, you should then file a complaint with the airline itself. Airlines are required by law to acknowledge these complaints within 30 days of receiving them and to respond within 60 days of receipt. If this still does not resolve the issue, you can file a consumer complaint through DOT. The complaint will be forwarded to the airline and they will be required to respond.
Since some credit card companies offer travel insurance if you pay for the flight with one of their cards, contact your bank to see if your cancelled flight is covered. Different banks have varying policies regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and may offer additional resources, including the ability to dispute the charge if the airline fails to respond.
When Refunds Are Not Required
There are several situations where an airline is not obligated to offer you a refund:
- If you purchase a nonrefundable ticket and decide to cancel, the airline is not required to offer you a refund.
- When your flight is less than significantly changed or delayed—a timeline that the airline determines on a case-by-case basis.
- If an airline has notified you of a schedule change and you have chosen to accept the new flight times, you are no longer entitled to a refund.
- Flights that do not start, stop, or transit to the U.S. are not entitled to a refund per DOT. In this case, you’ll need to check the laws of the country in which you are flying.
The Bottom Line
The effects of the coronavirus pandemic have been difficult for everyone, and airlines are suffering more than most. That doesn’t mean, however, that they are exempt from the law. If an airline cancels your flight to, from, or within the U.S., you are owed a refund.
Know your rights and advocate for yourself, especially if an airline attempts to issue flight certificates rather than returning your money. If they fail to meet their obligations, escalate the issue by filing a complaint with the airline and the DOT. In the end, it’s your money and you’re entitled to it.