In a move that surprised absolutely no one, the US government threw our drowning airlines a $25 billion life preserver. And regardless of your personal views on government money going to private industry, it should at the very least ensure there are still planes to fly once we can all start planning vacations again.
To assist the flying public along with the airlines, the government made another bold move this month when it sternly reminded airlines that they are legally required to give passengers refunds when flights are canceled. Apparently, this detail has slipped through the cracks in recent years, and with complaints pouring into the Department of Transportation (DOT) like they’d just featured J-Lo in a halftime show, the agency issued an enforcement notice basically telling airlines, “Give people their money back, or else!”
But it’s not like airlines are just going to start wiring money into our accounts like big, flying stimulus checks. Like anyone who owes money, they’re not exactly jumping to do it, and getting your refund might take some work. And time. We chatted with attorney Christian Leininger, director of corporate development with the passenger rights group AirHelp, and he told us what to expect when you’re expecting a refund.
So airlines got a bailout, they’ll just start sending us cash now, right?
As nice as it would be for all of us to just start carving into that sweet $25 billion payout, it’s not quite that simple. In fact, it’s insanely complicated and includes provisions for loan paybacks, government stake in airlines, and employee payroll funds. Nowhere does it mention giving a refund for your canceled flight to Sacramento.
That’s not to say this infusion of cash won’t eventually mean you get your refund. It just means asking for that refund now is kind of like asking your unemployed friend who just got a job about that 50 bucks he borrowed last August.
How do I know if my flight qualifies for a refund?
If the airline cancels your flight, for any reason, it qualifies for a refund. As the DOT so bluntly put it in its enforcement notice:
“The…obligation of carriers to provide refunds for flights that carriers cancel or significantly delay does not cease when the flight disruptions are outside of the carrier’s control. The focus is not on whether the flight disruptions are within or outside the carrier’s control, but rather on the fact that the cancellation is through no fault of the passenger.”
The complication comes with flights subjected to a “significant” schedule change. The DOT has no specific definition, so it is completely at the discretion of the airline what qualifies as “significant.” Delta, for example, considers 90 minutes significant. United will only refund if you’re delayed by more than a day. Contact your airline to see what its parameters are, then remember that the next time you book.
Who do I contact for a refund?
If you booked your flight through an airline, contact that airline. If you booked a flight on a codeshare partner through an airline, you need to contact the codeshare partner because they are ultimately the ones responsible for ticketing. So if you bought a flight on British Airways through American Airlines, you’ll need to call BA. This also holds true for regional airlines, who may be harder to get refunds from as they have far less margin to work with.
If you booked through an online platform like Priceline or Expedia, you’ll need to request your refund through them. Same goes for human travel agents; if you booked through a travel agent, contact your travel agent for a refund.
How do I go about getting a refund? Will the airlines just give it to me automatically?
Quite the contrary, says our expert.
“You have to apply for a refund,” says Leininger. “The airlines will just keep your money on a canceled flight, so you have to apply. If you log onto the website, there should be buttons (to request a refund) when you cancel. If not, you can email the customer care center, or send something via mail.”
That last option can be tough if you’re trying not to leave your house and don’t happen to have postage stamps laying around. This may be part of why Lufthansa recently mandated all refund requests be done by mail.
If you enjoy listening to airline hold music on loop, you can try calling. Anecdotally, we’ve heard people who’ve attempted to call airlines only to be met with an answering machine saying they were not equipped to handle calls of any kind right now and just got disconnected. Other airlines offer a callback service where they ring you as soon as an agent is available. If you do manage to get through to a real life human, please be nice to them. They’ve probably had an extremely long day/month/year, and are depending on that bailout for their paycheck.
If I cancel my plans, do I still get a refund?
No you do not. While many airlines are waiving change and rebooking fees, if you voluntarily cancel your trip you are not legally entitled to a refund. You may choose to play a little “flight cancellation chicken” and see if the airline cancels the flight first. But if it operates the flight it has lived up to its end of the bargain, and if your ticket is nonrefundable, it is still nonrefundable.
So how long is it going to take to get my money back?
The short answer is: Not anytime soon.
“If airlines paid out all their refunds at the moment they would all go bankrupt ,” says Leininger. “Typically, it’s a process that should take a few days, but we’re advising people to be patient. I’d expect them to be reluctant to pay within the next month.”
Because airlines are short on cash, giving refunds for canceled flights isn’t their top priority. Airlines in the US have already asked the DOT to relax or reverse the rule requiring them to pay refunds, and Leininger says in Europe airlines may reach a compromise where they’ll have a few months to pay. Or at least wait until the worst of the crisis is over.
“Be patient,” he reiterates. “In two to three months’ time, when flights have resumed again, (airlines) will be more comfortable and be at a point where they’re paying out. Right now, they’re just buying time.”
Since the DOT has no set timetable on when, exactly, airlines must give refunds, the timing of the refunds is as uncertain as anything right now. Basically, don’t count on that money for your next grocery bill.
My airline said it’s not processing refunds right now, what are my options?
Leininger says, anecdotally at least, that some passengers have called airlines and stayed on hold for hours only to be told something along the lines of, “We’re not processing refunds at this time.” While legally, they can’t refuse to refund you, they can delay the process in this manner since there’s not much enforcement on the other end.
“Our advice is contact airlines in all ways possible, and keep all documentation about the booking,” he says. “Keep documentation about how you’ve been trying to contact the airlines, keep track of the response. And, again, do not accept any voucher if you don’t want the voucher. Do not waive your right to get a refund later.”
Can you sue the airlines?
Can you sue them? Sure. Theoretically you can sue anyone for anything. Will you be successful, and, more importantly, can you collect? That’s another story altogether. Recently, a Minnesota police officer filed a class action lawsuit against United Airlines in federal court over its failure to pay refunds. The case is still pending, but Leininger warns lawsuits may be a calculated consequence airlines are willing to endure.
“They know if they get sued, it’ll be months until it goes to court,” he says. “And nothing is going to happen unless they’re pressured by an outside authority.”
Should I just accept a voucher for future travel to save myself the aggravation?
Many airlines are offering vouchers for future travel instead of full refunds, effectively trying to keep some cash as they hemorrhage money.
“(Airlines) will use passengers as a bank for an interest-free loan, with no clear indication of when they might pay,” says Leininger. “So we would advise passengers not to accept the voucher, as that also might mean waiving their right to a refund.”
That said, if you’re a frequent traveler and are cash-stable at the moment, you may want to hold onto the voucher for what will undoubtedly be a much-needed vacation once the world opens back up. Just remember, Leininger warns, those vouchers are basically IOUs, and if the airline goes under, they aren’t worth the virtual storage space they’re taking up in your inbox.
“If the airline does go bankrupt, it has no value,” he says. “So we tell people to wait until the whole situation gets clearer.”
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