Coronavirus caused the airline to cancel your flight and you're owed a refund. Here's how to get it. Michelle Couch-Friedman, author

If coronavirus made your airline cancel your flight, this is how to get a refund

If the coronavirus caused your airline to cancel your upcoming flight, you might be wondering how to get your refund. Well, wonder no more.

Every day, the airline industry is coming up with new, surprising ways to avoid paying those cash refunds. But our team is here to make sure you know what your airline does — and doesn’t owe you during this pandemic. Here is the guidance you need to ensure you won’t miss any refund owed to you.

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Here is the guidance you need to ensure you won’t miss out on any refund owed to you. (Last updated Oct. 7)

If an airline canceled your flight, it owes you a refund

The Department of Transportation requires that airlines refund passengers in the case of a carrier-initiated cancellation or extended delay. This rule applies to domestic and international flights that originate or end in the United States.

However, during the coronavirus crisis, we’ve seen many airlines cancel flights but refuse to offer a refund. In fact, many are trying hard not to acknowledge the cancellation at all. Instead, terms such as “modified” or “updated’ have replaced the word “canceled” to describe these itineraries that no longer exist.

This renaming of canceled flights is a creative effort by the airlines to avoid the DOT’s refund requirements. But make no mistake — if your airline cancels your flight, the DOT requires it to refund your ticket. However, the airlines (some more than others) are making it difficult for passengers even to make the refund request.

You should not have to contact an advocacy team to be able to ask for your refund

Brian Ostenso was one of those passengers who found it impossible to ask for a refund after his airline canceled his flight during the coronavirus.

In March, United Airlines canceled the most critical leg of his journey to Australia. And Ostenso expected a swift $6,000 refund. Instead, he got a frustrating battle to try to reach anyone at the airline who would hear his plea for help.

When the airline sent him a giant unwanted future travel credit, he contacted our team to make it right. Of course, we love to make things right for consumers, and in this case, we did, but that step should not have been necessary.

Travelers need to be aware of the DOT regulation and be persistent with their efforts to obtain a refund.

A short, well-worded request that mentions the Department of Transportation’s April 4 enforcement notice can often give the airline the nudge it needs to process your cash refund.

The Elliott Advocacy research team maintains current executive contact information for most airlines for your convenience.

But can foreign airlines ignore the Department of Transportation’s rules?

Recently things got more complicated for consumers who are seeking refunds for canceled flights during the coronavirus.

In mid-April, our team began receiving a surprising new type of plea for help. Air Canada had started offering only vouchers for future travel — even when it canceled the passenger’s flight. This move violates the DOT regulation requiring airlines that operate within the U.S. to provide refunds for canceled flights initiated by the carrier.

But each day, our team received more complaints about Air Canada’s new policy to only issue vouchers.

Edward Wojtowicz was one of those disgruntled airline passengers who contacted us.

Air Canada canceled our flight because of COVID-19. The flight originated in Pittsburgh, Pa. I wrote a letter to corporate headquarters and emailed Air Canada’s customer relations stating that I preferred a refund instead of a travel voucher. Several weeks ago, I also notified the U.S. DOT of the situation. I have yet to receive a response. On June 2, Air Canada Customer Relations stated that I have ‘the option to keep the remaining value of the ticket for future travel with no expiry date.’

The airline refuses to refund the $1,775 value of the tickets — even though it canceled our flight. Air Canada has stated, ‘We realize you may disagree and view this approach as inconsistent with the U.S. DOT’s Enforcement Notice. However, we believe that our position is consistent with U.S. law. (We have) examined this question in depth.’

Understandably, this stance confused many travelers familiar with the DOT regulation that says if the airline cancels the flight, it must provide a refund.

The Canadian Transportation Agency weighs in

It turns out that the Canadian Transportation Agency issued a statement that Air Canada and others interpreted to approve the practice of issuing vouchers instead of refunds during the coronavirus pandemic.*

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And it wasn’t long before other countries soon followed with similar temporary policies.

*June 30 update: The original version of this article incorrectly identified the Canadian Transportation Agency’s(CTA) March 25 statement as an official regulation. In an email this morning, a spokesperson for the CTA clarified the scope of the statement:

The CTA offers suggestions to airlines and passengers in the context of a once-in-a-century pandemic, global collapse of air travel, and mass cancellation of flights for reasons outside the control of airlines.

The Statement doesn’t affect airlines’ obligations or passengers’ rights. If a person believes they are entitled to a refund for a flight that was cancelled for reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic and doesn’t want to accept a voucher, they can ask the airline for a refund. If a passenger thinks they are entitled to a refund and the airline refuses to provide one or offers a voucher with conditions the passenger doesn’t want to accept, they can file a complaint with the CTA, which will determine if the airline complied with the terms of its tariff. Each case will be decided on its merits. 

The U.S. Department of Transportation has not addressed these dueling policies — yet. Right now, it’s unclear if these policies will continue or be reversed in the future.

Oct. update: Unfortunately, things have not changed with Air Canada since we first published this article in June. The Elliott Advocacy team continues to receive daily complaints from consumers who received automatic future flight vouchers after Air Canada canceled their flights. We recommend the following strategies to address this ongoing problem. 

What you can do if the airline rejects your refund request

If an airline canceled your flight during the coronavirus and then rejected your refund request, here’s what to do.

  • Send a written refund request to the airline.
    Make sure you let the airline know that you want a cash refund. You will need this paper trail if these temporary voucher policies are retroactively reversed in the future.
  • Make a formal complaint to the Department of Transportation.
    The more complaints logged about any specific issue, the higher the likelihood that the DOT will take action. If an airline has violated the DOT regulations concerning your canceled flight, you can file your complaint here.
  • Consider a credit card dispute.
    The Fair Credit Billing Act allows consumers to file a chargeback if the merchant doesn’t deliver the services as agreed. If an airline canceled your flight and won’t give you a refund, ask your credit card company about filing a dispute. But remember, this should always be your final option. Filing a credit card dispute prematurely can lead to more troubles.

Airline tickets purchased through a third-party booking agent

Our team always recommends that travelers book directly with the airlines or use a professional travel advisor. The savings are typically minimal booking through a third-party site, but the headaches are vast when things go wrong. This fact has never been more apparent than during this pandemic.

Dale Powers found this out the hard way when he recently used the online ticket broker ASAP. After the coronavirus forced Delta Air Lines to cancel his family’s flight to Europe, he expected a full refund. But Powers was in for an unpleasant surprise.

We received notification from ASAP that Delta Air Lines canceled our flight from Minneapolis to Bremen, Germany. ASAP worked with us to try to find alternative flights. However, after much discussion with our traveling party, we decided to accept the cancellation from Delta. It is my understanding that when an airline cancels a flight, it is required by federal law to provide a full refund. ASAP is charging us a $105/ticket “processing fee.” I believe that is not legal. Is it?

Of course, I hate to be the bearer of bad news. But the answer to Powers’ question is, “Yes. It is legal.”

Third-party booking agents can charge a cancellation or service fee even when the airline cancels your flight. Keep in mind, the Department of Transportation’s rules about a full ticket refund after an airline cancels your flight, only pertains to tickets purchased directly with the airlines. The DOT can’t stop ticket brokers from charging cancellation and/or booking fees.  So it’s very important if you choose to use a consolidator or other ticket broker that you review all the terms of your ticket purchase beforehand. The policies associated with your ticket will also be indicated on the confirmation that you receive after you buy your ticket. For further information, see:

After I broke the news to Powers, he reluctantly accepted his refund from ASAP minus the processing fees. But after this expensive lesson learned, he’ll be booking directly with the airline next time.

“Thanks, Michelle,” Powers told me. “I don’t shoot the messenger. Lesson learned.”

How can you make sure you get a full refund if your airline cancels your flight

  1. Book directly with the airline.
    The Department of Transportation requires the airline to process a refund if the carrier cancels your flight. When you book directly with the airline, you have the power of the DOT behind you. If your airline tries shenanigans and won’t refund your ticket, you can file a complaint. The airline will be required to answer your complaint through the DOT within 60 days. Filing a grievance with the DOT is usually all that is necessary to get your refund processed.
  2. Use a professional travel advisor.
    Using a trusted, professional travel advisor can provide you with the same benefits (and more)as booking directly with the airline. He or she may charge you a small fee for using their services, but the peace of mind you’ll get in return is invaluable. If your airline cancels your flight, your agent can handle the details of retrieving your refund. The American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) can help you find a professional agent. 
  3. Use an online booking agent, but read all the terms.
    If you’re still a fan of third-party booking agents, read all the terms of use before you book a flight. Not all third-party booking agents charge a service fee, but many do — even if the airline eventually cancels your flight. So you don’t get blindsided by surprise fees, it’s vital to acquaint yourself with all costs involved before making the reservation.
  4. Don’t cancel your credit card (the original form of payment) before your flight.
    You’ll want to make it easy for the airline to send your refund. You can do that by keeping the original form of payment open until your flight (or refund). Keep in mind that airlines always refund travelers to the original form of payment so canceling a credit card before your flight can lead to additional roadblocks to your refund.
  5. File a complaint with your state’s attorney general’s office
    As previously mentioned, the DOT cannot enforce rules on a third-party booking agent. So if you should run into trouble, you won’t be able to file a complaint with the DOT. However, you can file a complaint with your state’s attorney general’s office if things go wrong. Here’s how to find your state’s attorney general.

But if you canceled your flight before the airline did, you’re out of luck

Finally, the Elliott Advocacy team has been inundated with requests for help from passengers who canceled too soon. We’ve been warning travelers since mid-March not to cancel your flight before the airline does. If you do, you’ll likely end up with future credit instead of a refund. This is true even if you discover that later the airline eventually canceled your scheduled flight.

Remember, if you have an upcoming flight and the airline has not canceled it yet, resist the urge to cancel. Once you do, we won’t be able to mediate a refund. But if the airline cancels your flight and won’t give you a refund, fill out this request for help and we’ll investigate. Remember we’re here to help 24-hours a day, 7 days a week.

*Nov. 2021 update: Still waiting for your Air Canada refund? This week the hammer fell on the airline and it agreed to pay a $4.5 million fine to the Department of Transportation for violating its refund regulations during the pandemic. The tips at the end of this article will help you make sure to get your refund from Air Canada now.

Stay Safe, friends! 🙂