It only took 25,000+ additional complaints, but the U.S. Department of Transportation is reminding airlines what was clear from the start: refunds cannot be withheld for cancelled flights.
I’ve discussed (in depth) United’s absurd redefinition of the word cancellation. While American and Delta have been generous in offering refunds, United has tried to re-invent what the word means, in a pitiful display of desperation.
> Read More: United’s Peculiar Redefinition Of “Cancelled” Flight
But the DOT has once again reminded all airlines that these sorts of cheap tricks are not permitted.
In a statement issued on May 12, 2020, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao said:
The Department has received an unprecedented volume of complaints from passengers and is examining this issue closely to ensure that airlines’ policies and practices conform to DOT’s refund rules. The Department is asking all airlines to revisit their customer service policies and ensure they are as flexible and considerate as possible to the needs of passengers who face financial hardship during this time.
What is an unprecedented volume? The DOT usually receives 1,500 complaints per month. In March and April, the DOT received 25,000, most regarding refunds.
While Chao’s language above is fairly weak, the DOT also issued a detailed fact sheet (.pdf) which reminds airlines that:
“DOT expects carriers to honor those reasonable interpretations in implementing their refund obligations and will focus its enforcement actions on instances where a carrier has disregarded the requirement to offer refunds, failed to honor its refund policies, or where it is determined that the carrier’s refund policies or practices are otherwise unfair or deceptive.”
Remember, the term “cancellation” or “significant change” are not defined, but the DOT has responded to many passenger complaints about United by agreeing with passengers they are due a full refund on a cancelled flight that United has tried to redefine as simply having been “removed” from the schedule.
Airlines Cannot Retroactively Apply New Refund Policies
In addition, airlines have been reminded that new refund polices cannot be retroactively applied.
May airlines and ticket agents retroactively apply new refund policies?
The Department interprets the statutory prohibition against unfair or deceptive practices to cover actions by airlines and ticket agents applying changes retroactively to their refund policies that affect consumers negatively. The refund policy in place at the time the passenger purchased the ticket is the policy that is applicable to that ticket. The Aviation Enforcement Office would consider the denial of refunds in contravention of the policies that were in effect at the time of the ticket purchase to be an unfair and deceptive practice.
This again appears directed at United, as United has tried to apply its new refund policy retroactively.
It’s nice to see the U.S. Department of Transportation affirm consumer rights to refunds. Any further airline aid or service exemptions should be conditioned upon promptly refunding tickets to passengers whose flights are cancelled or changed against their will.
> Read More: If The Voucher Doesn’t Suit, You Must Dispute.
> Read More: What Constitutes A “Significant” Flight Schedule Change?