A flight to nowhere might sound romantic but paying for a flight that never happens is annoying and a waste of money. But that’s what millions of Americans unwittingly did in 2020 when they did the safe thing and canceled their trips because of the pandemic.
Instead of refunds, many stymied travelers just got vouchers from the airlines, even though federal regulations require that airlines offer a full refund when flights are canceled.
If your flight is cancelled and you choose to cancel your trip as a result, you are entitled to a refund for the unused transportation – even for non-refundable tickets. You are also entitled to a refund for any bag fee that you paid, and any extras you may have purchased, such as a seat assignment.— U.S. Department of Transportation
Now many of those one-year vouchers are about to expire. Consumer advocates say the airlines, who got more than $215 billion in subsidy payments from taxpayers, should give full cash refunds to all passengers whose travel plans were canceled because of the pandemic.
In one typical case, a vacation traveler found himself stranded in Palm Springs, California, by wholesale flight cancellations in March 2020.
“On March 8, 2020, I made two one-way reservations for my wife and I from Palm Springs, California, to JFK Airport, on Flight 0150, scheduled to operate April 9, 2020. The fare of $636.80 was charged to my American Express card,” the traveler said in a letter to JetBlue.
“On March 30, I was notified (copy attached) that the flight had been canceled owing to the coronavirus pandemic. I was told that I could request a travel credit valid for one year. Since PSP-JFK is the only JetBlue route I routinely fly and since I currently have no plans to return to Palm Springs prior to the date in question, this option is worthless to me.”
JetBlue refunded the money as requested. Meanwhile, the traveler had made a new reservation on Delta for a one-stop flight from Palm Springs to New York. Delta changed the flight schedule just one day later, adding five intermediate stops that lengthened the trip from about six hours to 14. Unlike JetBlue, Delta resisted making a full refund, saying the flights were “equivalent.”
“It’s consumers’ money — they should be able to get it refunded, rather than watch it evaporate in an unusable voucher,” the consumer group PIRG said in an email. “We’re calling on major airlines to stop holding their customers’ money hostage and provide full cash refunds for canceled flights.”
PIRG is asking consumers to sign a petition calling on the airlines to cough up the money. Consumers can also file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation. Many have already done so. In fact, the department says it received 57 times as many complaints about air travel refunds in 2020 compared with 2019.
“What good is a voucher in a time when so many consumers are facing unprecedented financial vulnerability due to the pandemic? And what are people supposed to do when their vouchers are about to expire, yet it’s still unsafe to fly?” asked Emily Rusch, PIRG’s executive director.