Airline Complaints Soar as Passengers Complain of Refund Denials

Consumer complaints against airlines climbed more than 700% in the weeks after the pandemic reached U.S. shores, with many travelers saying they weren't getting refunds for cancelled flights. Now Congress is taking a look.

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Thousands of planes are parked, and thousands of flights are off the schedule, as the pandemic has pushed air travel down more than 90%. But many passengers tell NBC Bay Area they aren't getting their money back for cancelled trips.

The chorus of complaints has gotten so loud, some in Washington are taking notice -- and Congress could take action.

More than 130 travelers have contacted us with airline complaints since the coronavirus pandemic began. A majority say their carrier was unresponsive when they asked for a full refund on a cancelled flight, or otherwise unwilling to provide one.

A bold, red message to travelers on the U.S. State Department website could not be clearer: "Do Not Travel." So some people, like Avia Hawksworth in Calistoga, cancelled their flights on their own.

"After an hour of speaking with a representative, I was told I would receive a refund in 21 days," Hawksworth said.

Weeks later, Hawksworth said the airline failed to keep its promise, declining a cash refund and offering an air fare voucher instead.

"The best they could do under the circumstances was to give me a credit toward future flights," she said.

For others, like Car Obenauf, the airline itself cancelled the flight. But Obenauf says he still hasn't gotten any cash back.

"Your trip is non-refundable, but don't worry, the unused value of your ticket is safe, you'll be able to use it towards future travel," Obenauf said, explaining what the airline told him.

Paul Hudson, President of consumer watchdog, says airline credit is not what travelers expect -- or want.

"The average American only goes on a plane trip once every one to three years," Hudson said. "They're not going to care about a voucher that may be good for anywhere from 90 days to a year."

"This is simple – airlines must give consumers their money back for cancelled flights during the coronavirus pandemic, regardless of who made the cancellation."

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, (D) California

Consumer Complaints Up 700%

A review of airline passenger complaints lodged with the U.S. Department of Transportation shows Hudson is correct. DOT usually gets about 1,500 complaints in a typical month. But in March and April, more than 25,000 passengers complained -- an increase of 8 times the usual rate, or about 730%. Many of those complaints concern refunds for cancelled trips. That prompted DOT to issue a new consumer advisory on Tuesday.

The crowd of angry voices heard at the DOT is echoing a few blocks away at the U.S. Capitol. Sen. Kamala Harris, (D) California, and four other senators want to change federal law, and require refunds for everyone. They just authored a bill, titled the Cash Refunds for Coronavirus Cancellations Act of 2020.

In a news release, Sen. Harris said: "This is simple – airlines must give consumers their money back for cancelled flights during the coronavirus pandemic, regardless of who made the cancellation."

It's unclear how much money the airlines are sitting on. For Hawksworth, it's about $600.

"I’m very frustrated," she said. "It’s a lot of money to me. It’s not a lot of money to them."

Fighting for Refunds

Millions of passengers are cancelling their flights, without anyone new taking their seats. Some planes are flying with nearly zero passengers. In spite of this, refunds are tricky, thanks to lengthy airline contracts and policies that have shifted several times since March.

Bottom line: if you cancel a trip on your own, before the airline does, you're likely not due a cash refund. It might actually be a savvy move to not cancel a trip in advance; instead, wait until the day of departure, to see if the airline cancels.

If the airline does cancel on you, the Department of Transportation says you get your money back, not a voucher. Since the pandemic began, the DOT has twice reminded airlines of their obligation to refund passengers, within seven days if a credit card was used to pay for the air fare, or 20 days if payment was made by cash or check.

Passengers say that's not happening. They're either getting vouchers, or nothing at all. That includes NBC Bay Area Consumer Investigator Chris Chmura, who has been waiting 35 days for a refund on a flight his airline cancelled early last month. So far, he's received nothing.

What do the airlines have to say about this? NBC Bay Area contacted their trade group, Airlines for America. We did not receive a response.

Airlines Stick to New Policies

The major airline websites say their new policies offer the "most flexible travel experience" and provide "peace of mind." For passengers who've cancelled on their own, airlines have waived change fees and extended voucher expiration from one year to two.

Sen. Harris and her bill co-sponsors say passengers like Hawksworth, a now-furloughed chef, deserve cash back for their unused airline tickets.

"I spent over $600 on it," Hawksworth said. "Right now, anything could help."

One final note: if you do wait until the day of departure to see if your airline cancels your flight, keep an eye on the clock. Most reservations require you to cancel before departure time. If you cancel after departure, you might be charged a "no-show" fee. In some cases, that fee can completely wipe out the value of your ticket.

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