Can’t get a refund from your airline? Here’s what you can do.
Many airlines offer only vouchers, not refunds, even though you are legally entitled to a full refund.
Data from the Department of Transportation (DOT) show that refunds – or lack of – have been the No. 1 complaint category against U.S. airlines since summer 2020. Our research, released in a December 2021 report, shows complaints increased by 460 percent from February 2020 – the month before COVID hit – through August 2021, mostly due to complaints about refunds. Refunds make up 80 percent of complaints since March 2020, up from only 6 percent in the summer of 2019.
Issues with refunds have continued as airlines have canceled or delays significant numbers of flights during just about every major holiday or heavy travel period (such as spring breaks) since spring 2021.
Currently, refunds are required by law when the airline cancels the flight itself, for any reason, whether in the airline’s control or not.
Even when the airline cancels, we’re still seeing some carriers offer vouchers as the default option, without letting customers know they have the right to a full cash refund. This is wrong.
If you want a refund for your flight, here are the steps you should take for flights affected by weather, staffing, COVID and other issues:
Wait to cancel if you can
If you think an upcoming flight may be canceled (because of bad weather, for example,) you can either try to change to a flight before the storm (possibly for a fee), or wait to see what happens. Even if you don’t want to take the flight any more, you should wait to cancel to avoid a cancellation fee.
You are entitled by law to a full cash refund if the airline cancels, makes a significant schedule change or significantly delays a flight, so wait as long as possible to cancel. Unless a new law is passed, airlines won’t be required to give you a refund if you’re the one canceling. There has not been much progress on federal laws requiring full refunds, but the FAIR Fees Act, which restricts hidden fees during flying, was reintroduced in Congress in December 2021.
As Anna Laitin, former director of financial policy for Consumer Reports, said during our joint webinar in 2020, persistence pays off for consumers who are legally owed refunds when the airline cancels the flight. You may have to ask for the refund. You may be offered a voucher instead, but as the Department of Transportation has reminded the airlines twice now, you are owed a refund. Do not take anything other than a refund.
But, if you already accepted a voucher for a flight the airline canceled, you are still legally entitled to and can ask for a refund instead.
Persistence may also pay off if you are the one canceling your ticket. On our webinar, Sen. Markey said that Allegiant and Spirit agreed to provide refunds to customers who ask for them. Consumer Reports has also heard some success stories from customers of other airlines. Make sure to have your flight information on hand when calling your airline.
Dispute the charges with your credit card company
Have you persisted but hit a wall? Take it from my friend, James Nortey, who gave me permission to share his story with you:
“After American Airlines and United refused to offer a cash refund and only provided a voucher, I asked my bank to void the transaction as fraudulent and get a cash refund—it worked. I recommend this to everyone, but the point is you shouldn’t have to. Businesses should refund cash as the default option.”
James is spot-on. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has more on exercising your right to dispute charges as billing errors.
File a complaint with the Department of Transportation, and follow up
Suffice it to say, you’re not the only one having problems with the airlines. The DOT’s data shows that there were 138,316 complaints between March 2020 and September 2021. If you haven’t received a satisfactory resolution from your airline, you too can file a complaint with the DOT. The airline will be required to respond to you and the DOT.
Complaints can lead to action. In November 2022, six airlines were required by DOT to pay more than half a billion dollars to people who were owed refunds from a canceled or delayed flight, but the airlines had stonewalled them.
Your complaint will also be part of monthly public reports, including numbers of complaints by company and types of problems. According to the DOT, “complaints can lead to enforcement action against an airline when a serious violation of the law has occurred. Complaints may also be the basis for rulemaking actions.”
In March 2022, the Aviation Consumer Protection Advisory Committee held another meeting to discuss refunds. The committee has made recommendations to the DOT about what to do about refunds moving forward. Before then, you can call the DOT at 202-366-4000 and email Secretary Pete Buttigieg to tell DOT officials the changes you want to see.
Your voice matters
On the morning of our webinar, we jointly delivered nearly 250,000 petition signatures with Consumer Reports and Jennifer Stansfield to 11 of the major airlines (electronically, of course).
Jennifer canceled a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Italy with her husband but could only get a voucher from United, not a refund. So she started a Change.org petition that has generated 186,000-plus signatures. That’s an awesome story about the power of one person’s voice!
It’s not too late to have your voice heard too. You can take action by sending a message to the DOT today.
U.S. PIRG cohosted a livestreamed press conference in May 2020 on airline refunds with Consumer Reports, consumer-turned-activist Jennifer Stansfield and Sen. Ed Markey (MA). The discussion focused on the problems consumers are facing trying to get refunds during the COVID-19 pandemic and what is being done about them.
Take the next step to help support our work.
Using the time-tested tools of investigative research, media exposés, grassroots organizing, advocacy and litigation, U.S. PIRG Education Fund, a 501(c)(3) organization, stands up to powerful interests and delivers concrete results. But we need your support to keep our work going strong.
As threats to the public interest grow, our work becomes more important every day. Every contribution powers our research, fuels our advocacy, and sustains our future.
Consumer Watchdog, U.S. PIRG Education Fund
Teresa directs the Consumer Watchdog office, which looks out for consumers’ health, safety and financial security. Previously, she worked as a journalist covering consumer issues and personal finance for two decades for Ohio’s largest daily newspaper. She received dozens of state and national journalism awards, including Best Columnist in Ohio, a National Headliner Award for coverage of the 2008-09 financial crisis, and a journalism public service award for exposing improper billing practices by Verizon that affected 15 million customers nationwide. Teresa and her husband live in Greater Cleveland and have two sons. She enjoys biking, house projects and music, and serves on her church missions team and stewardship board.
Director, Consumer Campaign, U.S. PIRG Education Fund
Mike directs U.S. PIRG’s national campaign to protect consumers on Wall Street and in the financial marketplace by defending the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and works for stronger privacy protections and corporate accountability in the wake of the Equifax data breach. Mike lives in Washington, D.C.