You’d think, after they received a bailout from the federal government, that United States airlines would start refunding customers for trips they canceled or changed significantly because of the coronavirus crisis.
You’d think, but you’d be wrong.
The U.S. Department of Transportation only suggested that airlines pay cash refunds if customers want them. In an April 3 enforcement notice, DOT reported “receiving an increasing number of complaints and inquiries from ticketed passengers, including many with non-refundable tickets, who describe having been denied refunds for flights that were canceled or significantly delayed.”
But suggesting isn’t changing anything. Airlines are giving travel vouchers for canceled trips if passengers change their plans. If the airline cancels the flight, often at the last minute, the airline will pay cash.
Have you canceled any flights? If so you might have experienced change after change to the time and even the day. And you likely decided early to cancel your trip, given the situation today.
This is angering travelers, just as the airlines are getting federal money to keep employees working and stay afloat.
The $2.2 trillion coronavirus federal relief package signed into law March 27 provides $25 billion in grants and loans to passenger airlines in return for warrants that can be converted to smaller ownership stakes in the companies.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said at the time that the agreement would “help preserve the strategic importance of the airline industry while allowing for appropriate compensation to the taxpayers.”
Passengers are taxpayers, and they might want a chance at refunds at this point. They are likely concerned about expiration dates of travel vouchers and when they may feel safe boarding a plane.
Congress did question an airline, in this case Frontier, over its plan to charge passengers $39 per flight to guarantee they would sit next to an empty middle seat.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for some passengers who can’t afford to pay an additional charge to be less safe than other travelers,” said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
Frontier CEO Barry Biffle told lawmakers the airline would rescind and no longer charge the extra fee, called “More Room.”
Similar discussion should have taken place over refunds and travel vouchers. Passengers should have their choice, and airlines should pay those travelers who seek refunds.
Moving forward, as travel continues to slow with coronavirus concerns, the airlines that agree to pay some refunds may win favor of passengers when they return to traveling again.
Also, the airlines that work with passengers on travel voucher use and extend deadlines likely will win favor.
It may make a difference when air travel gets back to its new normal.
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