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.

Consumer alerts


Updated

Airplanes in the sky
Pixabay | Pixabay.com

Data from the Department of Transportation (DOT) show that refunds – or lack of – remains one of the top complaints against U.S. airlines for the last few years. Complaints against U.S. airlines hit a new record in 2022, and again in 2023.

To be clear: If you want a refund, they are required by law when the airline cancels the flight, for any reason, whether in the airline’s control or not.

If you ask for a refund and paid by credit card, you must get that refund within seven days. If you paid by check or cash, you must get your refund within 20 days. That’s a full refund of your ticket price, taxes, baggage fees, seat selection fees, any extra charges and any other ancillary fees.

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 happened as recently as July 2024 after the global IT outage led to thousands of cancellations the first day. This is wrong.

Now, there may be cases when you don’t want a refund, such as if you want to get your ticket transferred to another flight with that airline or another (at no additional cost to you.)

If you want a refund for your flight, here are the steps you should take for flights affected by weather, staffing 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. If you cancel, you aren’t necessarily entitled to a refund.

There has not been much progress on federal laws requiring full refunds if the traveler cancels, but the FAIR Fees Act, which restricts hidden fees during flying, was reintroduced in Congress in 2023.

Be persistent

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 multiple times now, you are owed a refund. Do not accept anything other than a refund if you actually want a refund. Read the law to the customer service rep if you have to. Be nice, but firm.

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.

Dispute the charges with your credit card company

Have you persisted but hit a wall? Take it from our friend, James Nortey, who gave us 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 nearly 20,000 complaints about refunds in 2022, up from 1,574 in all of 2019 (the last pre-pandemic year.) 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

In May 2020, we jointly delivered nearly 250,000 petition signatures with Consumer Reports and traveler Jennifer Stansfield to 11 of the major airlines (electronically, of course).

Jennifer canceled a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Italy with her husband because of COVID 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!

You can use your voice and take action by sending a message to the DOT today.

PennPIRG Education Fund

Take the next step to help support our work.

Using the time-tested tools of investigative research, media exposés, grassroots organizing, advocacy and litigation, PennPIRG 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.

Donate

____________________________________

Read our analyses and recommendations
regarding the airline industry
going back to 2021

 

Topics
Authors

Teresa Murray

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.

Mike Litt

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.