Travelers struggle to get refunds after canceling flights amid coronavirus pandemic

Shutdown of runway 25R at FRA

By Henry Ren
Medill Reports

Genie Schwartz canceled her late April flight from West Haven, Connecticut, to Wilmington, North Carolina, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Connecticut residents to eliminate non-essential travels in late March. She then called American Airlines to refund her $400 airfare, only to be offered a travel voucher valid until December 2021.

“I don’t know when it will be safe to travel again,” Schwartz said. “I would really like my money back.”

The 73-year-old had also scheduled a trip to London in mid-May through a local travel agent. The agent had canceled all of Schwartz’s trip reservations and the travel insurance, except for the flights with Delta because the agent was waiting for Delta to cancel the flight.

“If Delta doesn’t cancel, again, I’m stuck,” Schwartz said.

Like Schwartz, thousands of travelers are unable to get cash refunds from major U.S. airlines after proactively canceling their flights amid the coronavirus pandemic. For compensation, they are offered a full travel credit usable in one to two years, depending on the airline.

Airline passengers generally don’t qualify for refunds if they purchased non-refundable tickets and canceled their flights themselves, according to aviation consumer protection guidelines issued by the Department of Transportation. They are entitled to refunds, however, when airlines canceled their flights, significantly changed their flight schedules or delayed their flights.

Unable to refund tickets over the phone, travelers have flooded to social media since mid-March, hoping to get cash refunds instead of travel credits through barrages of complaints.

“A flight voucher [electronic travel certificate] doesn’t put food on the table or keep the roof over my head. A trip might not even be possible for me in the next year if I can’t find work,” wrote Joe Carelli on March 30 to a United representative on Twitter. The representative ended their conversation after his complaint and asked him to rate his experience.

Carelli, 29, said in an interview that he canceled the trip from New York to Las Vegas with Delta and the return trip with United in late March, when the state of New York announced a statewide lockdown. In the same week, he lost his job.

A Delta representative offered him a full refund based on his “extraordinary circumstances” while United denied his refund request on the phone and through Twitter direct messages, Carelli said.

Carelli was offered an electronic travel certificate, which could be used to deduct about $200 when he books a United flight for himself or other people in two years. But without a job, he said a trip to Las Vegas is a luxury that he does not expect to afford in 2021.

Four Democratic senators said in a press release on April 17 that U.S. airlines were estimated to be sitting on more than $10 billion of travel vouchers. Among major U.S. airlines, only Spirit and Allegiant were offering cash refunds to travelers who voluntarily canceled their flights during the pandemic, the senators said.

The four largest U.S. airlines — United, American, Delta and Southwest — all reported a loss in the quarter that ended March 31. Industry trade group Airlines for America said asking airlines to refund non-refundable tickets or those canceled by a passenger instead of the carrier will result in “negative cash balances that will lead to bankruptcy,” Reuters reported on May 5.

Under the Payroll Support Program, four airlines expect to receive $19.4 billion in financial relief in total, according to their press releases. Airlines said the funding helped them to pay employee wages and benefits, preventing furloughs and pay rate reductions through the end of September.

Still, none of the airlines promised to refund travelers who canceled flights themselves. In email responses, American and Southwest said non-refundable airfares of previous bookings could be transferred toward future trips by Dec. 31 and June 30, 2021, respectively. Delta declined to comment on refund policies. United could not be reached for comment.

For future air travelers who want full refunds if their trips are canceled, Brett Snyder, president of the travel assistance company Cranky Concierge, said travelers should not proactively cancel their trips until 24 hours before travel.

“If you wait, the flights may cancel, and then you might be able to get a refund,” he said. “It’s always good to wait.”

Snyder’s company launched a new service called Refund Hunter in late March, aiming to help its hundreds of customers to postpone or refund their flights.

If travelers are dissatisfied with airlines’ refund decisions, they can file a complaint with the Department of Transportation as long as the trip involves U.S. territories, Snyder said. “Good arguments” may help, such as an added stop or a delay of more than four hours, he said.

Melissa Darvey, 30, had to cancel her April trip from Sydney to Philadelphia on United after the Australian government prohibited its citizens from leaving the country for an indefinite period beginning in late March. Darvey said United changed her flight from one stop to two stops but refused to issue her cash refunds, saying a flight from Sydney to San Francisco was still operating. She complained twice to the Department of Transportation, stating the flight schedule change in her second attempt. She was granted a refund.

Similarly, Schwartz filed a complaint to the Department of Transportation on April 28 after she noted American Airlines recently canceled her flight to Wilmington after she had canceled her reservation.

Schwartz shared her story on the website of Consumer Reports, which has collected more than 3,200 airline refunds stories. More than 89,000 people have also signed a petition on the site, demanding airlines refund consumers who had flights canceled or elected not to fly.

“We hear a lot from Airlines for America that the airlines are in bad financial shape. Well, so are consumers,” said William McGee, an aviation advisor at Consumer Reports. “There are a lot of Americans who are hurting and need their money back so that they can pay rent, pay a mortgage and buy groceries.”

“The fact that $50 billion in taxpayer grants and loans wasn’t enough to prevent airlines from being able to give refunds is absurd,” he said.

Photo at top:  Planes of Lufthansa were grounded on a closed runway at the Frankfurt Airport during the coronavirus pandemic. (Frank Lammel/Flickr)