US DOT Clarifies Flight Refund Rules

Filed Under: Advice

My goodness, the blog today might as well be renamed “One Refund Policy at a Time,” because there’s so much to talk about when it comes to flight refunds.

DOT clarifies flight refund rules

The US Department of Transportation has today issued an enforcement notice, reminding airlines that they need to refund passengers in the event that their flights are cancelled, or there are significant schedule changes. As the enforcement notice states:

  • The DOT has seen an increase in consumer complaints related to flight refunds
  • Customers are entitled to a cash refund when the airline cancels a scheduled flight or makes a significant schedule change and the passenger chooses not to accept the alternative offered
  • This applies for flights operated by US and foreign airlines to, within, or from the United States
  • Because this is an unprecedented situation, the DOT will exercise enforcement discretion, and will give airlines the opportunity to become compliant before taking further action

Airlines are required to offer refunds for cancellations

The DOT enforcement notice

Here’s the full notice from the Department of Transportation:

The U.S. Department of Transportation today issued an Enforcement Notice clarifying, in the context of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) public health emergency, that U.S. and foreign airlines remain obligated to provide a prompt refund to passengers for flights to, within, or from the United States when the carrier cancels the passenger’s scheduled flight or makes a significant schedule change and the passenger chooses not to accept the alternative offered by the carrier. The obligation of airlines to provide refunds, including the ticket price and any optional fee charged for services a passenger is unable to use, does not cease when the flight disruptions are outside of the carrier’s control (e.g., a result of government restrictions).

The Department is 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. In many of these cases, the passengers stated that the carrier informed them that they would receive vouchers or credits for future travel. Because the COVID-19 public health emergency has had an unprecedented impact on air travel, DOT’s Aviation Enforcement Office will exercise its enforcement discretion and provide carriers with an opportunity to become compliant before taking further action. However, the Aviation Enforcement Office will monitor airlines’ refund policies and practices and take enforcement action as necessary.

This applies even to foreign airlines flying to the US

This isn’t new, but maybe airlines will now take notice?

This doesn’t represent a change of policy, but rather has been the unenforced policy all along. We’ve seen airlines try to get away with offering vouchers rather than refunds. United has been the consistently worst about this, while JetBlue has a new policy that is bad as well.

With this updated notice from the DOT, I imagine airlines will be forced to take action. In particular, it will be interesting to see if airlines update their published policies, given that the DOT is now going to “monitor airlines’ refund policies.”

United has been the consistently worst offender with this among US airlines

Bottom line

The DOT has now clarified what has been the policy all along, which is that airlines need to refund passengers for cancelled flights or significant schedule changes. This is a useful clarification, as we now know with certainty that this policy applies even with the current exceptional circumstances.

As I’ve said many times before, I get the challenges airlines face, that many can’t even afford to refund passengers. That also doesn’t justify them essentially stealing money from passengers and violating the law.

I’ll be curious to see how this plays out…

(Tip of the hat to Simon)

Comments
  1. Good for the DOT. At least they’re reiterating current policy vs. pulling the rug out from under consumer’s feet like German regulators.

    This is about a strong a statement the department can make without a full one fine.

  2. How long is it taking the airlines to process refunds for their own cancellations? Mine has been in pending status for nearly 3 weeks?

  3. Perhaps airlines should take an example from Aer Lingus. They give you the option of receiving a full refund or getting a voucher with a 10% bonus.

  4. Yesterday you said that Econ + seats and other non-refundable fees would not be refunded. Do you think this language will help – “including the ticket price and any optional fee charged for services a passenger is unable to use”?

  5. UA already reached out to me on a DOT complaint I submitted Sunday For a refund. Fingers crossed they actually go through with it.

  6. Thanks for all this information. I am afraid I am going to have to cancel trips in early June and I want to understand my options.

    Based upon your statement, this applies to Singapore Air if they cancel a flight out of a US airport. I have been reading about them not giving refunds, and I am happy to see that (at least for flights starting in the US) they have to give refunds if they cancel the flight. Does this sound correct?

    Thanks again.

  7. @ Ben — Market powers will correct this. United will end up bankrupt, and Delta won’t. The Golden Rule applies in business, too.

  8. I guess the overarching issue is that “airlines” aren’t really canceling flights here – various governments and other regulators are. And airlines depend on those prepaid tickets to operate. In reality, just like many other situations here, the government should be directly responsible. Government tells people not to travel? The government should refund the cash directly to consumers. The government tells people not to go to restaurants or retail stores? The government needs to employ those impacted and to help the business impacted.

  9. They’ll have to amend policy and reach out per the full notice language.

    “Specifically, the Aviation Enforcement Office will refrain from pursuing an enforcement action against a carrier that provided passengers vouchers for future travel in lieu of refunds for cancelled or significantly delayed flights during the COVID-19 public health emergency so long as: (1) the carrier contacts, in a timely manner, the passengers provided vouchers for flights that the carrier cancelled or significantly delayed to notify those passengers that they have the option of a refund; (2) the carrier updates its refund policies and contract of carriage provisions to make clear that it provides refunds to passengers if the carrier cancels a flight or makes a significant schedule change; and (3) the carrier reviews with its personnel, including reservationists, ticket counter agents, refund personnel, and other customer service professionals, the circumstances under which refunds should be made.”

  10. The DOT will do nothing for the airlines. The announcement was to pretend they were doing something. The airlines will continue to do what they want and skirt the law. There is nothing to monitor. Now that they have the $$$, they will really show their hatred towards the customers. It would NOT suprise me if the simply don’t honor their vouchers.

  11. @Anthony. Exactly the point
    The DOT is enforcing the refund policy and yet it was the US government who instigated a travel ban and advised airlines they couldn’t fly and that their customers would be allowed to enter the country

    Therefore the US government should accept the burden

    Therefore the DOT should refund the customers

  12. I was shocked by the DOT. I really thought they were going to follow the lead of France most recently, Germany, on allowing the airlines to skirt the refund rules.

    To those who say the government should reimburse us passengers since the government is forcing the cancellation of the flights, well they really are since part of the bailout package was $25 billion in grants.

  13. What’s interesting here is I’d be game for some middle ground.

    I’ve got intl flights that were cancelled for late April. Roughly $5K worth of tickets for the family. As a nearly 2MM United flier, I’ll obviously fly them again – so a voucher isn’t a huge deal. But, if given the opportunity, I’m certainly going to get my refund for now.

    But, I’d also be willing to find some middle ground. Give me a credit worth say 30% more, and then I’ll take that instead. Sure, that might not sound like a fair bargain – but neither is not refunding my money per US law.

  14. @ Anthony: Since when anyone or any business is entitled to receive full payment before a service is rendered or a contract is modified at his or its convenience? We should do what the Bhutanese government does: All prepaid tourism revenues are deposited directly to the national bank and will be fully dispersed to tour operators once the visitors leave the country. Same for US airlines. The DOT creates an escrow to withhold prepaid air ticket revenues and applicable taxes, excludes junk fees, and the airlines will be credited two weeks after the departure dates. If we are to believe your lunatic suggestion, we will not have to be six feet away from each other. We will all be six feet under for absolute certainty. There are still many Republican governors who still have not enforced “stay at home” policy. I think the federal government should implement the national payroll that sends directly 70% of regular wages to affected employees, instead of employers, after deductions and taxes. There won’t be a need to ban foreclosure, evictions, power service disconnection, etc..Everyone must sacrifice and pitch in because we are all in it together. How ironic !!! Reagan declared that the government is the problem, not the solution. Those who bitch the loudest about the governments at all levels are those who are first in line to receive government handouts/ bailouts/ assistance.

  15. It is not the responsibility of consumers to be the unsecured creditors of the airlines period. Any talk of a “middle ground” or “sympathy” is totally misplaced here.

    @Gene, I’ve found Delta to be just as egregious if not more so than United in providing refunds. Only AA has been processing refunds normally without having to go to war.

  16. Absolutely fascinating that the German government is refusing to support consumers in this and the U.S. seems to be going in the other direction. I would have predicted it would be the reverse.

  17. Moscow Mitch is going to have some VERY strong words with his wife tonight over this – may come out of his turtle shell

  18. Whether the DOT enforces or not, if you’re entitled to a cash refund and the airline refuses, call your credit or debit card company and immediately issue a charge back. Problem solved. Let the bank or credit card company fight for you.

  19. Awesome! TAP Air is being a PITA, so at least getting our intl flights refunded seems like a possibility.

  20. @Mark F – I had a flight on Singapore Air from JFK-FRA leaving 3/17 and returning 3/23. The return flight was cancelled but not the outbound leg. I never could reach anyone on their phone line so did the cancellation online and submitted a refund request. Frankly I wasn’t expecting much, especially since their policy treats each flight as separate so, at best I was expecting a refund of the return ticket and a credit for the outbound leg.

    I got an email saying my refund was being processed for the full amount of my ticket (both ways) but it could take 4-6 weeks. However I got a full credit applied to my Amex Platinum card within a week.

    Overall very pleased and Singapore took care of me with no hassle. Hopefully you are as lucky as I was.

  21. I have already been refunded NY Alitalia, Iberia and even Ryan Air ! Lufthansa is the only one playing dumb !

  22. The best answer is to go down the route Aer Lingus has with the 10% bonus or Frontier with the $50 per ticket and try to give incentives to get people to not take refunds. Airlines are going to be flying half empty planes for a long, long time even after social distancing ends, so even offering a 50% incentive voucher would be a non-loss to airlines.

  23. It does not matter if the government or the airline caused the cancellation. You can’t charge the customer for a fight that did not happen. End-of-the-story.

  24. Thanks for this info! We live in Mexico and have a friend visiting who’s flight on Volaris was cancelled (BJX-SJC). They did not even have a way online where she could rebook her cancelled flight at no additional charge so ultimately when she rebooked, she was forced to pay a much higher fare… Then guess what? That flight canceled too. They never notified her by phone or email of either cancellations. When she tried to call Volaris she was on hold for hours with the calls eventually dropping. This ruling is the ammo that she needs to settle up with Volaris once she returns to the United States… Fortunately I found her a an award ticket on United Airlines ( and praying it doesn’t cancel).

  25. @Ernest Alleva is completely correct.
    This statement means nothing but to trick the public into a false sense of security. The airline doesn’t need to do anything different.

    “makes a significant schedule change”
    DOT needs to clarify what is significant. I know that UA thinks more than 25 hours is significant. I also know my neighbor John thinks more than 5 minutes is significant.
    Useless statement.

    “and the passenger chooses not to accept the alternative offered by the carrier.”
    And 99% of the flying population doesn’t even know they can choose to not accept the alternative offer.
    Every airline gave already have alternate offer.
    Every airline is was and still currently in compliance with DOT.

    DOT WASTED OUR TIME.
    USELESS NEWS FROM DOT.

  26. Lucky……I could use some clarification on the DOT regulation regarding cancellations. I have a round trip flight booked on Alaska Airlines OAK-LIH, Oakland to Lihue, with an outbound scheduled for April 30th and a return on June 3rd. According to DOT regs, if an outbound flight is canceled is the entire ticket including the return flight considered canceled. As the shelter in orders and quarantine policies keep changes with gradual extensions, I can see my outbound canceled and return flight at that time not canceled…Can you clarify the cancellation policy if only the outbound flight is canceled at the start of a trip.

  27. @Donna – annoying little story here: Ethiopian Airlines had cancelled my return flight from Addis Ababa to London but whilst I was on the phone with them to arrange a refund they changed my flight status from cancelled to confirmed.

  28. Folks…you don’t get it. They *can’t* refund everyone. They frankly don’t have the cash to do so. It’s not about “you” getting a refund. It’s about “everyone” getting one. There was a bankruptcy announced this week of a financial company specializing in forward currency contracts for aviation fuel. Nobody is buying fuel…nobody needs the forward contracts. That’s just the beginning of the real story. Enormous aircraft leasing, financing and engine operation payments need to be made (many engines are owned by financial companies who *sell use by the minute*) – on thousands of aircraft sitting on the ground, generating no revenue. Like it or not, if the carriers refunded everyone they’d all be gone virtually overnight.

  29. Serves them right for using tomorrow’s money today. It’s a risk they chose it’s a risk they’ll pay. Please don’t say that’s how the industry works because monkey see monkey do is only for kindergarten and should only stay there

  30. What about Award flights? Airlines offering specials to buy miles, yet flights being cancelled and limited/no award space on flights so cannot rebook

    I wouldnt be buying miles now however surely the airlines are skirting the law if you:

    1) put reward flights on hold(ie AA),
    2) purchase miles & ticket the flights, and
    3) flights are then cancelled and you cant use the miles

    In the UK it would quite easy to go to small claims to have your case heard however at the very least selling miles now doesnt seem appropriate (yes I know they need to raise case, however limiting the opportunities to use the miles is the issue)

  31. Yesterday AA added a clause to their Covid policy that award tickets are no longer included in their no-change fee refund policy. You want your miles back for a cancelled flight? You pay a redeposit fee. Maybe the DOT didn’t include award tickets, as I don’t recall seeing this on the AA landing page before yesterday

  32. @Stuart – what’s your point? So since they don’t have the money because they blew it we the consumers should suffer? Everyone should just be the good guy and say that’s ok? I suggest you try this before paying your bills and when your creditors tell you to go pound sand we’ll see where you stand. It works both ways.

    The point is the airline industry is volatile right now. There are no guarantees AA or UA will survive this. I believe delta will and they have the best chance in my opinion. So a travel voucher, even with a bonus, means nothing if the consumer cannot use it.

    I will be insisting on a refund.

  33. My flights to and from Hawaii were cancelled. I’d be on the beach in Napili right now if the virus stuff hadn’t happened. Anyway, Hawaiian refunded my money right away. They were awesome. United, on the other hand, played hardball. THey waited until the last possible moment to cancel my flights clearly hoping that the passengers would cancel on their own and making them not have to offer the cash refund. They also changed my routing and put me on flights with a 22 minute connection time in SFO in violation of their own minimum connection time guidelines. Ugh…

    Anyway, I filed a DOT complaint and when I called back, the operator said that they were refunding my fare. Whether the DOT complain had anything to do with it, I don’t know, but it made me feel better!

    The thing is, if airlines would just treat paying passengers with a bit more respect this kind of stuff wouldn’t have to happen. United could have offered a 2 year travel voucher, or extra Mileage Plus miles to not cancel, all sorts of things. But no, they decided to play hardball. I’m really glad to see the DOT taking some form of action!

    Stuart, I have to most respectfully disagree. Bad management doesn’t mean that the airlines can disregard the law and not give refunds. United, for example, early on in the crisis stated publicly that they had enough cash to last through the end of the year. This was before all of the quarantines and groundings, so they were at least initially flush with cash. Airlines also possess a lot of assets and have access to capital, so they can do refunds. Perhaps the airlines that were already near collapse like Cathay couldn’t, but the rest certainly can, and should.

  34. To be clear, it’s not that somehow I’m supporting the carriers not refunding for cancels. It’s simply that the fact is that I don’t think it will be possible. Yes, poor management. Yes, stock buybacks. Yes yes yes. But that all doesn’t make cash magically appear.

  35. Sorry, but F— off United, you deserve to go out of business along with your thug like criminal enterprise. Sell a few planes. Average Americans who are losing their jobs could use that money back to buy food, not pay UAL executives who knowingly violate the law while collecting their salaries.

    As said above if they go bankrupt, poof you’ll see those “vouchers” vanish in a heartbeat.

    I am a long time loyal flyer, they flagrantly violated the law , refused a refund, per Res Agent the option to refund was REMOVED from their computers.

    They tried to get away with theft – all while going begging for a taxpayer funded bailout. Now they get called out by USDOT and in less than 24hrs magically are posting “Hey you can get refund.”

    Bad Karma coming your way UAL, you’ve been earning it in spades.

  36. If not for Corona I would be in my beautiful homeland Croatia right now, but it is what it is. Did not have any problem with Air Canada. They returned money to my Visa in 48 hours!!! Very nice! Not even a question ask!

  37. Your readers should BEWARE of Business Class Consolidators in Burlingame, CA! I appreciate ALL your findings and research. I have followed your advice. In addition to disputing a charge w/ my credit card company, I also filed a claim w/ the local BBB. I bought 2- business class tickets from this company. I read the terms & conditions. $10,800.00 was charged on my credit card. Only AFTER contacting the BBB, The company offered me $7220 refund when Singapore Air CANCELED MY FLIGHT. The ticketing agent NEVER told me the flight was CANCELLED by the airline, but refused to give me a FULL REFUND…and CHANGED their terms & conditions to avoid giving me my refund! They incurred fees…They are a company of compromised integrity!. It is the LAW…noted in this post by the DOT!

  38. Is there any sort of grievance or complaint process if an airline is still refusing to issue a refund? Aeromexicos won’t refund me for a flight (PVR-MEX-JFK) that now has a two day layover in Mexico City (was originally an 8 hour trip altogether).

  39. Travelocity has shut off their phone lines, instructing us to call within 72 hours of our travel package date. WTF phone lines were not affected by Covid. The DOT absolutely must become broader in demanding refunds. I for one, am not willing to wait to see if my flight is cancelled or if my hotel is closed. I am high risk, in quarantine. Can Travelocity force me to come out of quarantine to take my trip and not lose my money???????? I don’t want a confusing voucher and have to wonder about it will pan out without complications or more fees of it’sown later! I want to start anew with my vacation plans in the future WHEN I FEEL SAFE to do so. I paid in cash, and I want cash back. Period.

  40. United is still not issuing cash refunds for cancelled flights. In the reply to my Department of Transportation (DOT) complaint, they are referring to the cancellation of my non stop flight and rebooking on connections as a “minor schedule change”. Not minor if it results in connections instead of nonstop.
    Their offer was to rebook with no change fee or a two year electronic travel certificate. This is in violation of the law as stated on the DOT’s website.
    I don’t feel like becoming an unsecured creditor or granting United an interest free loan. They are already getting a sweetheart deal from the Government.
    I will continue this complaint and might even ask a local attorney who specializes in “Class Action Lawsuits” if he would like to look at this.

  41. Has anyone had any success in getting a refund from Iberia for flights to/from Spain and Portugal? It appears that our 5/1 flight from Barcelona to Lisbon has been cancelled by the airline. We were to fly on American into Spain from the US, but that flight was also cancelled and fares have been refunded. We are over 60, and have no use for a voucher with an expiry date since we don’t know when or if a vaccine will be developed that would allow us to feel safe flying again.

  42. The cancellation rule is very clear if the itinerary includes only non-stops, and I had no trouble getting a refund for a UA trip with non-stops only, both of which were cancelled with re-routing with connections. (Well just a little trouble – I read them the DOT rules).
    They’re giving me more trouble on another itinerary I’m trying to get refunded (United again): What if one segment of a connecting itinerary is cancelled, and the airline re-routes you through a different airport, same departure and arrival airports and similar departure and arrival as before (within just a few minutes)? Still required to refund? What if the time difference is a little greater (say two hours later arrival time)?

  43. Icelandair has been terrible. I chose to contact my Credit Card institution and they were super helpful. They will take of it for me.

  44. Any updates on refund eligibility of auxiliary fees such as phone booking fees, seat selection fees, prepaid bag fees, etc? And those fees paid for award tickets?

    The DOT notice simply says passengers should receive refunds promptly, I couldn’t find what exactly they should receive.

    Any international itineraries including a connection in USA, even less than 24 hours, are applicable to the US DOT rules?

  45. DOT says “Refund”. United says “Forget about it. Take Travel Certificate or nothing”.
    DOT allows complaint, which … send to United and used for statistics by DOT.
    And basically that’s it …. for today, April 20. Basically all this DOT warning/enforcement or whatever looks like polite Customer Service BS.
    What can passenger do?

  46. Still fighting United on this one. Two of my four flights were cancelled, and the re-route got us in much later. Initially called United and was promised refund. Received an email three days later that Refund was denied. Called again and was told to call the refund department during their open hours (limited). Called again a few days later and they wouldn’t connect me to refunds – talked to an agent and two supervisors, who kept me on the line until the refund department was closed for the day, at which point they told me I needed to call refund department (grrr). Finally reached the refund department who claimed once the refund was denied there was nothing they could do and I should request reconsideration through the online “Customer Care” contact. Did that and got a boilerplate “your ticket was non-refundable” response. (I doubt they read the carefully worded letter I attached, with DOT regs quoted, etc.). I’ll file a DOT complaint, but as Albert says, who knows what that will do.

  47. You absolutely need to file a DOT complaint, this is the only thing that will put them on the record.

    While I have not yet received a refund, every time I respond I include the DOT case worker in cc and they have said repeatedly that this is going to be done. In parallel I have disputed w CC company, and if United does not do the right thing I will just PDF those emails from DOT and United acknowledging I am due a refund and have them execute as close it out at the credit card company end.

    They are going to play every possible game to delay this, if they can delay everyone from a month or more from the time of DOT complaint those are extra months they keep billions of our dollars.

    If it let United just bounce you around that will never work… have to get their regulator (and provider of bailout) involved.

  48. I keep reading replies to this thread and my heart goes out to those who haven’t been able to obtain refunds. I’m also truly surprised at the lack of understanding about the practicalities of this crazy situation. There just ISN’T ENOUGH MONEY to pay everyone back. The wall of cash required to do that today doesn’t exist. It’s that simple. The carriers have NO REVENUE coming in, yet are still making required lease and engine use payments, paying for maintenance in order to ensure that the aircraft can return to service quickly, keeping pilots up to speed with simulator training, paying insurance companies, paying GDS and technical fees…and they’re paying for those current costs with, among other sources of cash, pre-payments for future flights. Regulations can say what they want, and yes stock buy backs shouldn’t have happened and so and so CEO is a bad human, and, and…but there just isn’t enough money. I know for a FACT that travel sellers have been issuing refunds in the $100s of millions A DAY. THEY DON’T HAVE ENOUGH TO KEEP DOING THAT. It’s not just YOUR ticket…it’s EVERYONE’S ticket. Issuing everyone a refund would shutter every carrier – and there STILL wouldn’t be enough money.

  49. Hi guys, I had booked on Air New Zealand which cancelled my flight in late August, I booked through a third party OTA. The OTA is saying they will refund the ticket minus 10-15% which is unacceptable as I expected a full refund as the service as expected wasn’t provided by the Travel Agent. They are saying it’s for their efforts which makes no sense… if you buy something from an online store and the product is eventually unavailable the store can’t keep part of your money for their “efforts” without delivering anything usable to the customer, I find that ridiculous!

    What can I do about this? I am still awaiting the partial refund and then was thinking of filing a DOT complaint or take it up with my Credit card. However, the CC shows that the airline was billed directly. Any pointers would be appreciated!

  50. Thank you for this information. I have spent hours on the phone fighting to get a refund from TAP Portugal. Expedia says it’s up to TAP and their refund policy; I have cited the DOT guidance and now have to wait a few more days to hear back whether I’ll be issued a refund.

    As mentioned by others, only conclusion I can draw is the airlines lost less by making the refund process as difficult as possible.

  51. Contact the airline directly in writing. Orbitz did same to my sis. When I showed he this info, she wrote airline & rec’d refund. I also contacted BBB on another same issue. Money was refunded from 3rd party after airline was contacted. In fact, airline had refunded 3rd party & they tried keeping $ as ticket was non refundable.

  52. Well we’ll see how this goes for me. My wife and 2 sons were supposed to fly to the Philippines 2 days ago and I was supposed to join them on June 6th. The flights were all cancelled. I purchased the tickets through Orbitz on Eva Airlines. I received this email from Orbitz today:

    Dear Valued Customer,

    You’re receiving this email because your airline has cancelled your flight. Due to low availability, there are no offered options to rebook you onto a comparable flight. Based on your airline’s policy for cancellations, you will receive either a refund or flight credit, so keep an eye out for another email with all the details.
    While refund eligibility is determined by the airline, rest assured that we are working incredibly hard to pursue a refund from the airline on your behalf. We’ll be in touch via email as soon as we have more information regarding your eligibility.

    I don’t want a credit. They can try to get me to accept a credit, but I won’t accept one. Wish me luck! I’ve been with Orbitz for a lot of years. Hopefully, they have my back here.

  53. Orbitz called me back and said that I will be getting a full refund, but it will take 7-8 weeks (so by last week of July) to process. I will try to update once they’ve given me the refund.

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