Consumer Reports, U.S. PIRG and activist deliver nearly 250,000 petition signatures calling on airlines to fully refund passengers for canceled flights

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Grace Brombach

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WASHINGTON — Consumer Reports, U.S. PIRG and a consumer-turned-activist delivered nearly 250,000 petition signatures today to the airlines calling on them to provide full refunds when passengers cancel their flights because of concerns about the coronavirus. The petition delivery came on the same day that Sen. Edward Markey (MA) introduced legislation in Congress endorsed by the groups that would make refunds mandatory in such cases.  

Despite receiving a $50 billion taxpayer-funded bailout as part of the CARES Act, the majority of airlines are only offering vouchers instead of refunds to passengers who canceled their flights because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. Additionally, even though passengers are legally entitled to a full refund if the airline cancels their flight, some carriers are offering vouchers as the default option. This forces passengers to take extra steps to get the cash refund they deserve.

“The airlines just received a multi-billion dollar taxpayer bailout and want to continue holding onto passengers’ ticket dollars as well. Frankly, that doesn’t fly,” said Janet Domenitz, board chair of U.S. PIRG and executive director of MASSPIRG. “It’s customers’ money. Airlines have a responsibility to return it on request during this crisis.”

In a letter accompanying the petition signatures, the groups noted that they have heard from thousands of people from all over the country who are frustrated that they can’t get a refund for their canceled flight. These stories include customers who canceled flights because of stay-at-home orders, senior citizens and other at-risk customers worried about their safety, and the newly unemployed who need the money to pay their bills. Others have expressed concerns that the vouchers will expire before it is safe to travel again.

“It’s simply unfair to deny refunds to customers who cannot travel safely or to those who are facing financial hardship and need the cash,” said Anna Laitin, director of financial policy for Consumer Reports. “The airlines are, in effect, forcing millions of Americans to provide an interest-free loan after these companies have already received billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded relief.” 

Jen Stansfield and her husband, residents of Denver, had been planning a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Italy in September to celebrate their 40th birthdays. In March, she decided to cancel her trip with United given the raging outbreak in Italy and uncertainty over when it would be safe to travel there again. The only option United offered her was a voucher. Jen was so frustrated that she couldn’t get a refund that she started a petition to the airlines on that has garnered more than 100,000 signatures.

“Given that we’re likely to be dealing with this pandemic for the foreseeable future, I’ll end up losing $2,000 because I’ll never be able to use the voucher before it expires,” said Stansfield.  “I understand that the airline industry is going through a tough time right now, but so are millions of Americans. Every person who has had to cancel travel plans due to the COVID-19 crisis deserves a cash refund.”

PLEASE NOTE: Consumer Reports can connect reporters with consumers who are frustrated that they could only get vouchers for cancelled flights instead of cash refunds. For more information, contact Michael McCauley ([email protected]).