Cancelled Or Delayed Flight: Can You Get A Refund?

Cancelled Or Delayed Flight: Can You Get A Refund?

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One positive thing to come of the pandemic is that most airlines in the United States no longer have change fees on most kinds of fares. That’s exciting, since it makes the process of booking a flight much lower stakes. It’s much easier to now speculatively book a ticket, especially if you frequently fly with an airline, and could use a voucher toward a future trip.

However, there’s often still confusion about under what circumstances you’re eligible for a cash refund in the event of an airline cancellation or delay (either in the form of a schedule change in advance, or even in the event of irregular operations day of). In this post I wanted to take a closer look at that.

US DOT policy on airline ticket refunds

The United States Department of Transportation (DOT) has rules regarding under what circumstances airlines are required to provide cash refunds to customers. While the DOT airline customer service dashboard is a generally helpful tool, let’s look specifically at refund policies regarding delays and cancellations.

Here’s what the DOT says about refunds for cancelled flight:

A consumer is entitled to a refund if the airline cancelled a flight, regardless of the reason, and the consumer chooses not to travel.

Here’s what the DOT says about refunds for delayed flights and schedule changes:

A consumer is entitled to a refund if the airline made a significant schedule change and/or significantly delays a flight and the consumer chooses not to travel.

DOT has not specifically defined what constitutes a “significant delay.” Whether you are entitled to a refund depends on many factors – including the length of the delay, the length of the flight, and your particular circumstances. DOT determines whether you are entitled to a refund following a significant delay on a case-by-case basis.

As you can see, the DOT makes it clear that you’re entitled to a refund if your flight is canceled, regardless of how much a delay it causes, and regardless of the cause of the cancellation. Meanwhile the DOT doesn’t explicitly regulate how much of a delay causes a refund to be required, but rather it comes down to each airline’s contract of carriage.

Let me emphasize that we’re talking here about real refunds (meaning to your original form of payment), rather than an airline voucher (which many people are nowadays entitled to even when voluntarily making changes).

These policies apply on all flights to & from the United States, regardless of which airlines operate them. Of course regulations will differ around the globe.

Airline policies on refunds for cancelled and delayed flights

As explained above, in the United States you’re always entitled to a refund to your original form of payment for cancelled flights, while refunds for delayed flights come down to a specific carrier’s policy. So, what are the policies of the four biggest airlines in the United States? They’re not necessarily all that clear…

American refund policy for delayed and cancelled flights

According to American’s contract of carriage, you’re entitled to a refund if your flight is canceled, or if there’s a schedule change resulting in a change of more than four hours to your departure time.

American Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 8

Delta refund policy for delayed and cancelled flights

According to Delta’s contract of carriage, you’re entitled to a refund if your flight is canceled, or if there’s a schedule change or delay of greater than two hours, or that will cause a passenger to miss a connection.

Delta Air Lines Boeing 757-200

Southwest refund policy for delayed and cancelled flights

As is the case with all airlines, Southwest’s contract of carriage makes it clear that you’re entitled to a cash refund if your flight is cancelled. However, the policy isn’t as clear when it comes to schedule changes and delays. The airline simply notes that “if a passenger’s scheduled transportation is significantly disrupted,” then a customer may receive a cash refund.

Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-700

United refund policy for delayed and cancelled flights

According to United’s contract of carriage, you’re entitled to a refund if your flight is canceled. However, you’re only entitled to a refund for a delay or cancellation if your “departure or arrival time changes significantly.”

United Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 9

What recourse do you have if airlines refuse refunds?

Post-pandemic, airlines are pretty good about following their published policies when it comes to refunds for cancellations or schedule changes. However, what happens if you do run into issues (this is probably more common with non-US airlines on flights to & from the United States)?

File a complaint with the DOT

This is unlikely to get you an immediate resolution, but if you are being denied a refund even though you’re legally entitled to one, I recommend filing a complaint with the US Department of Transportation.

These count against the airlines, and long term airlines might face fines for violating DOT regulations.

Dispute the charge on your credit card

Simply put, airlines are violating federal laws by refusing a refund if your flight is cancelled, and for the most part they’re also violating their own contracts of carriage. If you’ve tried every method for getting a refund but are denied, a credit card dispute might be the next logical step.

Bottom line

In the United States, you’re entitled to a refund to your original form of payment in the event that your flight is cancelled, whether that’s in advance (as part of a schedule change) or on the day of departure.

You’re also entitled to a cash refund in the case of a significant delay or schedule change, though it comes down to each airline to define what’s considered significant.

What has your experience been with cash refunds for airline cancellations and delays?

Conversations (11)
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  1. Omar Guest

    disagree with @iamhere. A dot complaint almost always yields the result I'm looking for. It escalates it to someone empowered to make an exception.

    As an aside, I find AA is much more lenient when granting a refund than its official rules state.

  2. iamhere Guest

    Complaint to the DOT is almost useless. I think the travel center such as the Chase travel center when using ultimate rewards knows what's going on pretty well on this. Back when there were change fees and during the early days of the pandemic it used to be a game to see if there would be delays in order to cancel a ticket for free that we wanted to cancel anyway.

  3. Weymar Osborne Diamond

    How do aircraft swaps affect this? I had an avios award ticket for JAL First Class from Tokyo to Chicago this summer, but that flight has been swapped out for a 787 and subsequently I was downgraded to Business Class. I know neither of those are American companies but the flight lands in the US and taxes and fees were paid in dollars so I assume DOT rules still apply.

    1. Steven Guest

      I would say you should be entitled to a full refund/cancellation if you request it. But at least you should be refunded the difference between a business class and first class fare.

  4. Eskimo Guest

    @Lucky

    This is more of a question about technicality and maybe your thoughts on how DOT, or each airline views this or should view this.

    1. If the flight number changes, is it considered cancelled?
    i.e.
    From regional to mainline vv.
    From XX010 to XX222 departing same time or few mins off
    Same plane but different marketing carrier.
    Different plane, different carrier DL to AF leaving shortly apart.
    Change...

    @Lucky

    This is more of a question about technicality and maybe your thoughts on how DOT, or each airline views this or should view this.

    1. If the flight number changes, is it considered cancelled?
    i.e.
    From regional to mainline vv.
    From XX010 to XX222 departing same time or few mins off
    Same plane but different marketing carrier.
    Different plane, different carrier DL to AF leaving shortly apart.
    Change of routing, AAA-XXX-BBB to AAA-YYY-BBB because AAA-XXX no longer operates.

    2. If your whole itinerary changes but arrive at your final destination within 2 hours.
    i.e.
    You have to leave 3 hours earlier but arrive the same time.
    You originally had a 5 hour layover but delay coming in by 2.5 hours but you arrive same time.
    You leave 2 hours later and arrive 3 hours later. (1 hour flight delay)
    Your layover changes from 1 hour to 5 hour and arrive 4 hours later.

    And this is technicality since COC distinguish between cancellation and a (2+ hour) delay but doesn't specify what falls into what.

  5. Ole Guest

    Ben, my wife’s aunt, uncle had a very weird/horrible experience on their recent (enf of Jan) Air Canada flight from Toronto to Delhi. The story goes:

    2/3 hrs into the flight, an old passenger seating couple of rows ahead of them suddenly fell. Couple of FAs performed CPR on the passenger in the aisle (for what seemed to be an hr) before figuring out he is dead. FAs put the body in a transparent plastic...

    Ben, my wife’s aunt, uncle had a very weird/horrible experience on their recent (enf of Jan) Air Canada flight from Toronto to Delhi. The story goes:

    2/3 hrs into the flight, an old passenger seating couple of rows ahead of them suddenly fell. Couple of FAs performed CPR on the passenger in the aisle (for what seemed to be an hr) before figuring out he is dead. FAs put the body in a transparent plastic bag with head sticking out. They sat the body next to them on the other side of the aisle. Also, at this point pilots decided to turn the flight around. They came back to Toronto. Of course everyone de-boarded, but airline was going to fly the same plane once it was cleaned, supplies loaded etc. They said this turned out to be a 10 hr flight to nowhere.

    There is a bit more to the story and its possible lot of it is exaggeration, but I am just wondering what is the protocol when someone dies on the flight. They s

    1. Patti Guest

      Good Lord.

      We have a gentleman pass away on our Qantas flight Syd-LAX.

      I was surprised they didn't stop in Hawaii but just moved him to the final row in economy, laid flat and covered him (fully) with blankets.

      We had to wait to deplane at LAX until paramedics declared him deceased, then we deplaned and the body was removed after.

    2. Eskimo Guest

      While protocols varies by airline, there are protocols.

      If the flight is full and I'm sure Airbus or Boeing doesn't have a morgue so the body needs to fasten seatbelt somewhere, it ends up on some available seat.
      The head sticking out is what seems not right. Should have given some dignity to the deceased. Maybe bodybags are not normally stocked, so the next best thing is a transparent garment bag (if it is even one)?

    3. Ole Guest

      Unless the flight was full I'd think, they would have found a better place to seat/lay him and irrespective, not covering him and keeping his head out must have been horrible for everyone sitting around. However, like I said, some of what happened might be a bit exaggerated so can't comment one way or the other. That being said, I'd think long haul flights would carry a body bag for such instances.

  6. kentravels Guest

    How about flight cx and I need to buy a last minute expensive tix to go home. Is the airline responsible for the extra outlay?

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Steven Guest

BUT I'm not DOT...lol

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Steven Guest

I would say you should be entitled to a full refund/cancellation if you request it. But at least you should be refunded the difference between a business class and first class fare.

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Ole Guest

Unless the flight was full I'd think, they would have found a better place to seat/lay him and irrespective, not covering him and keeping his head out must have been horrible for everyone sitting around. However, like I said, some of what happened might be a bit exaggerated so can't comment one way or the other. That being said, I'd think long haul flights would carry a body bag for such instances.

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