Data from the Department of Transportation (DOT) show that refunds – or lack of – have been one of the top two complaints against U.S. airlines for the last three years. Our research, released in an April 2023 report titled The Plane Truth 2, shows that nearly 20,000 complaints were filed about refunds last year. That’s nearly 20,000 ticket buyers – who may have purchased multiple tickets for their families – may still have not have gotten their money back after their flight was canceled.
Remember that complaints are generally filed after an issue hasn’t been resolved with the airline directly; even one complaint about not getting a legally required refund is too many.
Refunds are required by law when the airline cancels the flight itself, for any reason, whether it’s within the airline’s control or not.
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.
When your flight is canceled, you most likely just want to get where you were planning to go as quickly as possible. If a quick rebooking on that airline or another airline isn’t possible, or you don’t want that, then you’re entitled to a refund.
What to do if your flight has been canceled or significantly delayed and you want a refund?
- Don’t accept a credit or a voucher if you really want a refund.
- Know that it doesn’t matter why the flight was canceled, whether it was bad weather, staffing, equipment or whatever. If the flight was canceled, you’re owed a full refund, even if you bought a non-refundable ticket.
- Be nice. No matter what happens, the person you’re dealing with probably didn’t cause your problem, but they might be able to help you fix it. Plus, it’s always a good idea to be nice.
- If the airline resists, tell them you know you are legally entitled to a full refund. The law says you can’t be forced to accept a credit or voucher instead of all of your money back, including baggage fees, seat selection fees, taxes, etc.
- The airline must issue the refund within seven days if you paid by credit card, and within 20 days if you paid by check or cash.
You also are entitled to a refund in other circumstances, if:
- The airline made a significant schedule change or incurred a significant flight delay. To this point, DOT hasn’t specifically said what qualifies as “significant.” But new rules under consideration would characterize this as delays of three hours or more.
- You were moved involuntarily to a lower class of service, meaning if your first-class ticket was downgraded to economy class. In this circumstance, you’d be entitled to the difference between the two ticket prices.
- You paid for a service such as seat upgrades or in-flight WiFi and weren’t able to use it because of a cancellation, delay, schedule change or if you were denied boarding because the flight was overbooked.
- You paid to check a bag and it was lost.
What to do if the airline still refuses your refund?
- If after all of this, the airline still refuses to refund you, or it’s been longer than the seven-day/20-day deadlines, then immediately dispute the charge with your credit card issuer. You have a right to a refund because the flight was a service you paid for but didn’t get, through no fault of your own.
You must file this dispute with your card issuer within 60 days after the statement containing the airline charges. It’s generally easy to dispute a charge with your bank by logging in to your account online or through the app, if you have it. Make sure you get email confirmation your dispute has been received. If disputing by mail, It’s a good idea to send it certified. The card issuer must acknowledge your dispute within 30 days and resolve it within 90 days. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has more on exercising your right to dispute charges.
- In addition, file a complaint with the DOT. Don’t wait for the credit card dispute process to play out.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Are airline ticket refunds required?
A: Yes. Cash refunds are required by regulation when your flight is canceled, meaning it doesn’t take off. The reason doesn’t matter: it could be weather, staffing, equipment, security of something else outside of the airline’s control.
Q: What if I bought a non-refundable ticket?
A: It doesn’t matter. If the flight is canceled, you’re still entitled to a refund.
Q: Can I get my money back if I cancel my flight?
A: The law only requires that cash refunds for flights that are actually canceled, when the airline itself cancels the flight, not necessarily when you cancel your trip yourself. You should check the terms and conditions of your specific airline to see whether you can exchange your ticket for another flight, a voucher, or for a refund.
Q: How do I report an airline for not giving me a refund?
A: If you were legally owed a refund and your airline won’t give it to you, you can file a consumer complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation. The airline will be required to respond to you and the DOT.
Travelers need more protections when flights are canceled
The Department of Transportation (DOT) needs to do more to put a stop to bad airline behavior.
Consumer Watchdog, PIRG
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, PIRG
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.