Report: Complaints over refunds for canceled flights skyrocket during pandemic

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Many of us have had to cancel flights because of the pandemic but a new consumer watchdog report shows getting a refund for that canceled flight has been almost impossible with thousands of fliers complaining to the federal government for help!

Before the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Transportation generally got between 1,000-2,000 complaints each month about airline issues.

But in a new consumer watchdog report from U.S. PIRG released Thursday, it shows complaints peaked at nearly 22,000 complaints last May. The report shows 21,000 of those complaints were related to difficulty getting refunds for canceled flights because of the pandemic.

As of this August, these complaints are averaging about 3,000 a month and almost all of them are about refunds!

“They will not get a trip back,” said Jacob van Cleef, U.S. PIRG consumer watchdog associate. “The thing that they can get back, at least, is just the money that they spent.”

The report reviewed other complaints to the department of transportation like flight cancellations and delays, baggage issues and customer service.

But van Cleef said refunds continued to be the number one complaint.

“Let’s say, you want to get a refund, you go through customer service, but you’re on the phone for 10 hours, you’re more likely to send a complaint to the department transportation about the refund, less so the 10 hour waiting,” said van Cleef.

Airlines for America (A4A) represents Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest and United. In a statement to the Washington News Bureau, A4A said in part, “Since the onset of the pandemic, U.S. carriers have issued approximately $20 billion in cash refunds. In 2020, U.S. passenger airlines issued $12.8 billion in cash refunds, up 72% from 2019.”

The report also shows if customers got a voucher for a new flight, they couldn’t always use it before it expired or they spent even more money because the credit didn’t cover the cost of a new flight.

U.S. PIRG consumer watchdog associate van Cleef wants the Department of Transportation to improve the refund process for flights.

“Cancellation due to pandemic is it is an extreme situation, it’s only fair that people should get refunds for flights canceled due to the pandemic, said van Cleef.

A Department of Transportation spokesperson told the bureau it is working with thousands of passengers who had originally been denied get their money back.

This watchdog report shows Frontier, United and Hawaiian had the most complaints and Southwest and Allegiant had the fewest.

Full statement from Airlines for America:

A4A member carriers comply with all federal laws and regulations regarding cash refunds. Since the onset of the pandemic, U.S. carriers have issued approximately $20 billion in cash refunds. In 2020, U.S. passenger airlines issued $12.8 billion in cash refunds, up 72% from 2019. For A4A carriers, cash refunds issued in 2020 accounted for 25% of passenger revenues versus 4.4% in 2019. Additionally, in the first three quarters of 2021, U.S. carriers have issued 3.5% more cash refunds than they did in the same period of 2019 despite generating 46% less passenger revenue. In turn, cash refunds in 2021 are running at 8.2% of passenger revenue, nearly double the 4.4% of passenger revenue in 2019.

Throughout the pandemic, carriers have updated travel policies – including the elimination of change fees – to offer increased flexibility for customers, and they are committed to working with each customer to address their individual circumstances

We are continuously in communication with relevant federal agencies, the Administration, and Congress to prioritize safe and efficient travel.

Full statement from U.S. Department of Transportation spokesperson:

If consumers are dissatisfied with the service provided by airlines or ticket agents that sell transportation to, from, or within the United States, they can quickly and easily file complaints with the DOT’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection through its online complaint form at https://airconsumer.dot.gov/escomplaint/ConsumerForm.cfm. It is often beneficial for consumers to contact the airline or ticket agent first as they may be able to quickly resolve the matter with the consumer.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, DOT has received a record number of consumer complaints about airlines’ failure to provide refunds (nearly 600% increase). DOT has been working to not only help thousands of passengers who had originally been denied refunds get their money back, at least 9 airlines have since amended their policies to make clear that passengers are entitled to a refund when a carrier cancels a flight or makes a significant schedule change and are providing refunds as required. Initially, the airlines provided vouchers or credits instead of refunds for non-refunded tickets when the carrier cancelled a flight or made a significant schedule change. More information is here: USDOT Details Efforts to Secure Refunds for American Families For Flights Cancelled Due to COVID-19 Pandemic | US Department of Transportation.

The Department is committed to ensuring that airline passengers are treated fairly. We encourage consumers to visit the Department’s aviation consumer protection website (www.transportation.gov/airconsumer), which provides useful information about passenger rights, including issues related to flight delays, cancellations, refunds, and mishandled baggage, among other things.

To inform the public about the quality of services provided by airlines, DOT publishes data on airlines’ consumer complaints in its monthly ATCR. See www.transportation.gov/individuals/aviation-consumer-protection/air-travel-consumer-reports. The ATCR provides detailed information such as the number and types of complaints against individual airlines (U.S. and foreign airlines) and travel companies. It also ranks the largest U.S. airlines according to the rate of complaints per 100,000 passengers.