The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) on Tuesday issued a second warning to airlines about issuing ticket refunds during the coronavirus pandemic after a surge of traveler complaints.
The DOT said it has received more than 25,000 air travel service complaints in March and April, compared to the average of 1,500 complaints during a typical month, and many of them are about travelers being unable to get refunds for air tickets impacted by COVID-19.
“The Department has received an unprecedented volume of complains from passengers and is examining this issue closely to ensure that airlines’ policies and practices conform to DOT’s refund rules,” U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao said in a statement announcing the warning.
“The Department is asking all airlines to revisit customer service policies and ensure they are as flexible and considerate as possible to the needs of passengers who face financial hardship during this time."
The DOT first warned airlines on April 3 that they are required to provide a refund to passengers if a flight is canceled or significantly changed by the airline and that, despite the financial hardship they may be facing because of COVID-19, they still had an obligation to honor refund and cancellation policies.
That warning came on the heels of a push by ASTA for increased airline flexibility for airlines and the agency community as advisors had been increasingly stuck with debit memos and chargebacks after clients who were unable to get a refund from an airline instead disputed charges with their credit card company.
In its latest memo, the DOT wrote that “airlines have an obligation to provide a refund to a ticketed passenger when the carrier cancels or significantly changes the passenger’s flight, and the passengers chooses not to accept an alternative offered by the carrier.”
Because the terms “significant change” and “cancellation” aren’t defined in regulation or statute, airlines have taken looser definitions of those terms, which would lead to consumers not being able to get the refunds they want. The DOT said that it will now start to “focus its enforcement actions on instances where a carrier has disregarded the requirements” to give or honor refund policies.
The DOT is also warning of airlines who have retroactively changed refund policies, writing that “the refund policy in place at the time the passenger purchased the ticket is the policy that is applicable to that ticket,” and of airlines who don’t issue their refunds promptly (within seven days if a ticket was paid for by credit card and 20 days by cash or check).
The DOT said it is giving airlines the time they need to become compliant with the rules before taking any enforcement actions “given the unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 public health emergency on the aviation industry.” However, it will “continue to monitor airline policies and practices and take enforcement action as necessary and appropriate.”