DOT Proposes New Airline Ticket Refund Rules

DOT Proposes New Airline Ticket Refund Rules

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The Department of Transportation (DOT) has this week revealed a proposal that would strengthen protections for consumers in the event that their flight is canceled or has a significant schedule change. Historically the US government hasn’t been very specific in this regard, so I’d say say this is a step in the right direction, as it will help to clarify rules.

For now this is just a proposal, as there will be a 90-day period for public comment, before any changes are made. Let’s take a look at what this proposal would cover.

Clarity around what tickets are eligible for refunds

Currently the DOT requires airlines to refund travelers in the event that a flight is canceled or significantly delayed. The challenge is that this isn’t explicitly defined, and as we learned during the pandemic, many airlines took advantage of that.

This proposal would for the first time define the terms “significant change” and “cancellation” when it comes to flight schedule changes. The DOT proposes that significant changes to a flight would include: 

  • Changes that affect the departure and/or arrival times by three hours or more for a domestic flight or six hours or more for an international flight
  • Changes to the departure or arrival airport
  • Changes that increase the number of connections in the itinerary
  • Changes to the type of aircraft flown if it causes a significant downgrade in the air travel experience or amenities available onboard the flight

A canceled flight would be defined as one that was published in a carrier’s computer reservations system at the time of ticket sale, but which was not operated.

The DOT is proposing new flight delay & cancellation regulations

More flexibility for pandemic flight credits

This proposal would also require that airlines provide passengers with flight credits or vouchers that are valid indefinitely when passengers are unable to fly for certain pandemic related reasons. These could include government-mandated bans on travel, closed borders, or passengers advised not to travel to protect their health or the health of other passengers.

Furthermore if an airline receives significant government assistance related to a pandemic, they would be required to issue refunds in lieu of expiring travel credits or vouchers in these situations.

To be clear, this doesn’t just refer to the coronavirus pandemic, but also any future pandemics that we may see.

Airlines might have to make some vouchers more flexible

My take on the DOT’s proposed changes

It’s nice to see the DOT looking to update consumer protections around refunds, especially given all the refund sneakiness we saw from airlines during the pandemic. Over the past couple of years, airlines and consumers had very different definitions of what constituted a “significant change” to a flight schedule, so it makes sense that this is more clearly defined.

You might be thinking “well why does the DOT have to define what a canceled flight is, isn’t that obvious?” Well, during the pandemic United played some games with this. The airline claimed that a flight is canceled when it’s removed from the schedule and there’s no flight you can be accommodated on within six hours. Lol…

I’d say that these proposed changes are positive, though they’re definitely not overly consumer friendly. I mean, airlines only have to provide refunds for international flights if a schedule is changed by more than six hours? So if you’re going from Miami to the Nassau for the weekend and your schedule is changed by five hours, that wouldn’t entitle you to a refund? That seems weak…

I also like the idea around flight credits not expiring in the event of needing to cancel due to a pandemic. We recently saw Southwest Airlines change its policy so that ticket credits no longer expire, so the airline would already be compliant there.

Southwest is leading the way when it comes to voucher flexibility

Bottom line

The Department of Transportation has just revealed a proposal regarding consumer protections, which is open to public comment for a period of 90 days. With this, the DOT would clearly define what entails a significant schedule change and cancellation for the purposes of ticket refunds. Furthermore, in the event of pandemic related flight changes, customers would have to be issued vouchers that are valid indefinitely.

This seems like a step in the right direction, but a far cry from EU261 in terms of protecting consumers.

What do you make of the DOT’s consumer protection proposal?

Conversations (22)
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  1. danielbrian142 New Member

    The biggest problem I've experienced is the airline being the only one to really define who is at fault. There should be some specific DOT identified definition. There has to be a limit to how much weather on one side of the country can impact an airline's operations without it being an act of God. Bad weather does happen, but if you don't have some additional flight crews available to pick up the slack that...

    The biggest problem I've experienced is the airline being the only one to really define who is at fault. There should be some specific DOT identified definition. There has to be a limit to how much weather on one side of the country can impact an airline's operations without it being an act of God. Bad weather does happen, but if you don't have some additional flight crews available to pick up the slack that is not a weather issue. I've had 3 flights cancelled since May because of weather when the the weather delayed the flight, causing the crew to timeout, even though the plane was actually available.

  2. Liron Guest

    Where can the public comment?

  3. Watson Gold

    The delay needs to be as a percentage of original flight time, regardless of whether it's domestic or international. Maybe 50% is reasonable, with a minimum of 2h. That sets it to about 3h for transcon flights, and 4-6h for international depending on the route.

  4. DCAWABN Guest

    I'd like to see hard clarification on what actually constitutes a weather-related delay/cancellation. Every airline has had a VERY loose definition of that and has used that excuse ad nauseum to get out of just about anything and to keep passengers' money. Would also like to see punishment for airlines playing fuck-fuck games with the rules, too.

  5. Mlr Guest

    Have people heard about travel insurance?
    It's impossible for any industry to always be responsible for the events in their operations and those of their customers.

    1. D3kingg Guest

      @Mir

      Is travel insurance worth it ?
      Hotels and third party booking websites should be required to give refunds or re accommodate as a direct result of an airline cancellation or delay. The consumer should not have to pay for that. Maybe the airlines should be on the hook for lodging as well. We need consumer protection.

  6. Eskimo Guest

    Still very vague and far from EU261.

    "significant downgrade in the air travel experience or amenities available onboard"
    Could simply be airlines will now publish the whole fleet as a 300 seat CRJ-200 to everywhere including Europe. On day of departure you get upgraded to a 787, A320, etc.

    1. Mlr Guest

      Really. Is that the best you can come up with?
      Imagine that you're a marketing executive trying to sell intercontinental flights on a CRJ.

      Try a little harder. Mlr

    2. DCAWABN Guest

      @Mlr: And what would be YOUR solution or response? Try a LOT harder.

    3. snic Diamond

      Yeah that won't happen. Airlines compete with each other based on what sort of aircraft they're flying. What businessperson is going to buy a business class ticket to London on a CRJ?

    4. Watson Gold

      "We're sorry, but your re-accommodation from 77W Polaris to an A320 recliner does not constitute a significant downgrade." - future United response

  7. guisun Gold

    Considering AA change their cancelled flight refund policy, I wonder if more airlines will leave people stranded. Like you buy a cheap flight to Madrid, because that is all they can afford. Then instead of finding alternate flight, they will just simply refund the return portion for your ticket and let you find expensive last minute flight back home, if you can afford it.

    1. Evan Guest

      Yeah, I don't know how you can really "fix" this one. It's hard to say this, but if you can't "pad" your vacation budget for surprise expenses (or at least have credit card that you can charge and then pay off later), you probably shouldn't go. Or, plan something less expensive so you have the padding.

      Also, and even more important, ALLOW for flight delays when planning a trip. If you need to be at...

      Yeah, I don't know how you can really "fix" this one. It's hard to say this, but if you can't "pad" your vacation budget for surprise expenses (or at least have credit card that you can charge and then pay off later), you probably shouldn't go. Or, plan something less expensive so you have the padding.

      Also, and even more important, ALLOW for flight delays when planning a trip. If you need to be at work on Monday, don't select the last flight home on Sunday night. I know a lot of people do this so they can "maximize" vacation time. However, with the erratic flight schedules these days, losing one day of vacation is a lot better than losing one day of work.

    2. kenindfw Guest

      @Evan I disagree with your sentiment regarding work time is just as important if not more than vacation time. Most everyone has experienced delayed/cancelled flights and if your team/boss can't be flexible then maybe it's time to look elsewhere for a different position. I shouldn't have to give up 1 or 2 days of vacation time because AA "might" cancel or delay my flight. If I have to hedge then why bother going at all?...

      @Evan I disagree with your sentiment regarding work time is just as important if not more than vacation time. Most everyone has experienced delayed/cancelled flights and if your team/boss can't be flexible then maybe it's time to look elsewhere for a different position. I shouldn't have to give up 1 or 2 days of vacation time because AA "might" cancel or delay my flight. If I have to hedge then why bother going at all? I've had this happen usually on my departure, but usually never on my return.

    3. Evan Guest

      I agree you shouldn't "have" to give up vacation days. But the fact is the airlines are a mess today. As you said, maybe let your boss know and have a back up plan, or something else. My point was, have some sort of back-up plan.

    4. Bob Guest

      I don't think it's necessarily an extra $200 is going to cause someone grief. I see it more as standard procedure. Example, SW last year had massive cancelations over several days. I was too be in a SW flights 2 days later. When I asked cust service they "asssured" me the flight is in time granted India support always reassures you. So I didn't trust them. 3 hours before my flight it was still on...

      I don't think it's necessarily an extra $200 is going to cause someone grief. I see it more as standard procedure. Example, SW last year had massive cancelations over several days. I was too be in a SW flights 2 days later. When I asked cust service they "asssured" me the flight is in time granted India support always reassures you. So I didn't trust them. 3 hours before my flight it was still on time. 45 minutes before the flight it got canceled. Guess where 90% of the passengers are 45 min before the flight. SW Camdenton the other 8 flights that day to the same destination. There was just 1 flight still opened. Who's to say that wasn't going to get canceled as well. But since I didn't trust them I had a contingency plan to fly with another airline out of a different airport. I managed to get to my destination only 4 hours later than previously planned but the new ticket with united was 4x more expensive. Sure SW refunded my fare and gave me $100 apology but it still cost me several hundred more. And who wants to do plan B search every time they fly. There needs to be a time limit for cancelations . It can't be whenever because the airlines workflow is crapola.

    5. Max Guest

      No, for the return flight from Madrid to the Us, the EU261 rules would additionally also apply. And they state that the customer has the choice between full refund or rebooking on the next available flight which can also be on other airlines. Additionally there would be a 600€ cash compensation if the cancellation is the airlines fault.

  8. Ethan Guest

    Thanks DOT for bringing some real progress here.

  9. Raylan Guest

    DOT should refine what they mean by the last bullet point. Do they mean going from an upgraded UA Polaris 787 to one that hasn't been retrofitted, or from a 737/A319 to a regional jet?

    1. Evan Guest

      I agree on the last bullet point as well. It's almost like the DOT will have to wait and see how the airlines manipulate this provision in order to clarify the rule.

      In terms of the other provisions, spot on. Very specific. Only time will tell to so how the airlines will manipulate it.

  10. Donna Diamond

    From what my friends and family tell me, there were numerous nightmare scenarios during the initial stages of the pandemic with airlines refusing refunds for their cancelled flights. Personally, I had five international itineraries refunded within a few days of asking and did not lose a penny on anything, to include trains and hotels. Defining passenger rights across all US Airlines is very important going forward. Since politicians, right and left, all fly the proposed...

    From what my friends and family tell me, there were numerous nightmare scenarios during the initial stages of the pandemic with airlines refusing refunds for their cancelled flights. Personally, I had five international itineraries refunded within a few days of asking and did not lose a penny on anything, to include trains and hotels. Defining passenger rights across all US Airlines is very important going forward. Since politicians, right and left, all fly the proposed legislation should hopefully have teeth and pass.

  11. D3kingg Guest

    Credits never expiring due to the pandemic. Not sure about that. For those who claim we are still in a pandemic they seem to have done plenty of traveling this summer.
    Then there’s I’m supposed to be in the Bahamas for the weekend versus the gimme my damn $39 back I’m in Milwaukee and supposed to be in Atlanta 3 hours ago. The former pursues a refund while the later get security called on....

    Credits never expiring due to the pandemic. Not sure about that. For those who claim we are still in a pandemic they seem to have done plenty of traveling this summer.
    Then there’s I’m supposed to be in the Bahamas for the weekend versus the gimme my damn $39 back I’m in Milwaukee and supposed to be in Atlanta 3 hours ago. The former pursues a refund while the later get security called on. So there needs to be some type of consumer protection in place. Automatic processing of refunds back to credit cards with out even arguing or having to ask for it.

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Ethan Guest

Thanks DOT for bringing some real progress here.

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Donna Diamond

From what my friends and family tell me, there were numerous nightmare scenarios during the initial stages of the pandemic with airlines refusing refunds for their cancelled flights. Personally, I had five international itineraries refunded within a few days of asking and did not lose a penny on anything, to include trains and hotels. Defining passenger rights across all US Airlines is very important going forward. Since politicians, right and left, all fly the proposed legislation should hopefully have teeth and pass.

2
DCAWABN Guest

I'd like to see hard clarification on what actually constitutes a weather-related delay/cancellation. Every airline has had a VERY loose definition of that and has used that excuse ad nauseum to get out of just about anything and to keep passengers' money. Would also like to see punishment for airlines playing fuck-fuck games with the rules, too.

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