Dear Tripped Up,
In September 2019 B.C. — “before coronavirus” — my family and I booked a round-trip flight from Tampa, Fla., to London with British Airways, scheduled to depart in March. Then the coronavirus hit and our flight was canceled by the airline. We contacted British Airways to request a refund, but they have refused, stating they will only provide a voucher for future use. Philip
By now, you’ve probably read a number of coronavirus-related stories about refunds for canceled travel plans — I’ve written a handful myself. But there’s a reason we’re deliberately pounding the topic into the ground: It’s a big deal and there’s lots of confusion and contradictory information out there.
To begin, airlines are required to issue cash refunds when they cancel (or significantly delay) flights because of the coronavirus pandemic. That applies to domestic airlines as well as international airlines for canceled flights to, within or from the United States.
In an emailed statement, a British Airways spokeswoman said that you are, in fact, entitled to a refund; the airline’s customer service team has reached out to you to resolve the issue. “If a customer’s flight has been canceled, they should call us to discuss their options. They can rebook, refund or choose to take a voucher to fly at a later date,” she said.
The fact that you called and were initially told the exact opposite tracks with scores of other readers who feel that refunds have been turned into an all-out game of Frogger.
“At best, airlines are just hiding the fact that customers are owed refunds if they want one,” said Scott Keyes, an aviation industry expert and the founder of the website Scott’s Cheap Flights. “At worst, they’re actively not giving those refunds even when they’re asked. The thinking is: Right now we are in such a cash crunch that we want to maintain as much cash as possible — we can deal with the reputation ramifications and legal ramifications down the road.”
Micky, another reader, got an email from Delta Air Lines with the subject line: “Your Trip Has Been Canceled.” The body of the message stated that a canceled plane ticket had been turned into an eCredit; there were zero mentions of refunds.
“To save customers time, we proactively issued eCredits so they could easily reschedule without having to wait further. That said, customers whose flights have been canceled or significantly delayed by Delta are absolutely eligible for refunds upon request, in keeping with our longstanding policy. We’ll evaluate opportunities to clarify this in future correspondence,” said a company spokeswoman.
Last month, fueled by a surge in passenger complaints, the United States Department of Transportation issued a statement reminding airlines of their duty to issue refunds for canceled flights. But enforcement has been less than straightforward.
Class-action lawsuits against several major airlines, including Delta, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines, are certain to crank up the pressure. In the meantime, there are three concrete things one can try that don’t involve hiring a lawyer.
First, send the airline a direct message on social media. It may sound sophomoric, but several industry players have told me (anecdotally) that this can be a consistently reliable tactic. One reader also shared her luck with this approach.
“Delta did not notify us, but I saw online that the flights were canceled,” Linda wrote. “No emails. No phone calls. Nothing got a refund confirmation. Well, until I sent a private instant message through Facebook. Almost immediate reply. Asked for our names and confirmation number. Bingo. Refund confirmation received.”
The second course of action is to file a complaint with the transportation department. The federal agency tracks complaints by airline and releases them monthly; March complaints will be released in May and April complaints will be released in June. That data will be used by the department’s Aviation Enforcement Office to monitor airlines’ compliance with the refund policy, according to an agency spokeswoman.
Last tip: If you do manage to get an airline representative on the phone, do everything you can to get yourself passed around to another agent if the initial point of contact is unwilling to budge. That may mean asking to speak with a manager or asking to be transferred to a different department (then asking to be transferred back). Be patient; you’ll need a good chunk of time in order to let your options play out.
Or, as Mr. Keyes recently put it on Twitter: “When a parent says ‘no’ what’s the #1 thing every kid knows to do? Go ask the other parent.”