United Airlines canceled her original flight because of coronavirus. So why is getting a refund so hard?

United Airlines canceled my flight, so how do I get a refund?

Fact: If United Airlines cancels your flight during the coronavirus pandemic, it owes you a refund. Another fact? United Airlines would prefer to give you a future flight credit — even if it canceled your scheduled itinerary.

But can the airline or booking agent force you into accepting a flight credit by making it impossible to request a refund?

That’s what Renata Funk thinks has happened to her.

The travel industry is continuing to be pounded by coronavirus cancellations — with no end in sight. And many airline passengers are finding it virtually impossible to connect with the airline to request a refund. That’s true even when the original flight was clearly canceled by the airline.

So what’s a traveler to do?

Planning an international journey before the coronavirus hit

All winter, Funk was looking forward to her upcoming trip to Belgium. She has an apartment there and enjoys watching the springtime flowers bloom in her garden.

However, when the coronavirus started wreaking worldwide havoc, Funk started to question her journey.

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“I kept looking at the news reports about the growing coronavirus problem,” Funk told me. “With all the uncertainty, I thought my flight might be canceled by United Airlines.”

She was right.

It looks like United Airlines canceled the flight because of the coronavirus

Sometime in Mid-march, United Airlines sent Funk an alert that it had “modified” her nonstop flight from Washington D.C., to Brussels.

Now when Funk pulled up her springtime jaunt to Belgium, she had a new, much less convenient itinerary.

“Because of the coronavirus, United Airlines canceled my nonstop flight,” Funk reported. “The new itinerary has a long connection through Newark, and I don’t want to do that.”

But when Funk tried to request a refund for the canceled flight through the United Airlines website, she found no refund option.

United Airlines: “Contact Expedia about your ticket problem.”

“I called United Airlines, and the representative referred me to Expedia since I purchased the ticket on that site,” Funk recalled.

And unfortunately, that’s when Funk became embroiled in an endless loop of computer chatbots and unhelpful “assistance.” She found it impossible to request a refund or even to ask for a future flight credit from United Airlines.

With just days until her scheduled flight, Funk knew she needed to act fast. She didn’t want to end up being a no-show for the trip she had no intention of taking. But with neither Expedia nor United Airlines providing the assistance she needed, she wondered who could help her.

And that’s when an online search for help with canceled flights led her to the Elliott Advocacy team.

United Airlines canceled my flight. I don’t want this modification!

When Funk’s request landed on my desk, her frustration was evident. She had been wasting hours of each day worrying about, and trying to cancel, the unwanted flight modification. The new flight added many hours to her journey. Additionally, by this time, the coronavirus had placed many countries — including Belgium — in lockdown. Funk definitely wasn’t going to Brussels on the modified flights, but both companies involved made it impossible to refuse the new itinerary.

Funk told me that the button in her Expedia account to cancel and request a refund — or even a flight credit — was missing.

“Can you help me?” Funk asked. “Michelle, I get nowhere with Expedia, there is nothing that permits me to cancel on their site, only to buy new tickets. Could you not do it for me, since you have all the info?”

Expedia: “There are no coronavirus waivers in place for this flight cancellation.”

That sounded very unusual to me. But when Funk allowed me to go into her Expedia account to attempt to make the request, I saw that she was correct. The button was missing. There was no way to make the request. In fact, I soon found myself in an endless bounce between two screens — each one promising that the next screen would allow for a refund or cancellation request. One screen alarmingly warned that “the most restrictive cancellation penalties would apply.”

It seemed clear that the Expedia system had not received the information from United Airlines about the coronavirus waivers for canceled flights.

Something was definitely wrong.

Next, I tried the chat feature and asked to speak to an agent. That began a pointless loop of explaining my problem and then receiving the message to try again later. For over an hour, I tried countless times to snag a chatbot or agent.

The Expedia chatbots never arrived to assist with canceling this flight.
Waiting and waiting for a chatbot that never arrives to help cancel this flight.

Funk’s frustration was justified — there was no way to refuse the United Airlines flight modification on the Expedia site. And when I went to the United Airlines site, there was no possible way to decline the unwanted itinerary change there either.

With just 48 hours left before departure, it was time to reach out to our Expedia executive contact.

Asking Expedia for help with this coronavirus flight cancellation

Our executive contact at Expedia is always quick to help the consumers who contact us. But this case presented a more significant challenge than most.

I explained the situation and the impossibility of canceling and/or receiving the flight credit that United Airlines was offering passengers who booked directly. Our contact was surprised and said that the same options should be available to Expedia customers.

I reiterated that it did not.

Right now, the Expedia site doesn’t give any options. It shows an intimidating warning that the cancellation is prone to airline change fees. Renata’s reservation says, “the most restrictive cancellation penalties will apply.” Understandably, customers are afraid to cancel with that message displayed. And I also tried the online chat feature inside her account, and each time it says ‘Sorry, check back later no agents are available.’ (Michelle to Expedia)

A warning that canceling this flight will incur heavy penalties from United Airlines.
An intimidating warning about cancellation penalties for this itinerary — the one United Airlines had already canceled. “Please note that the most restrictive set of rules below” apply. 

Got it. I’ve gotten some background on why she might be seeing this message. Our dev team is working around the clock to load in all the various airline waiver policies so that customers canceling via our site will get the appropriate refund or credit, depending on the policy. However, our partners are putting out new waivers and flex policies all the time, and it takes some time for everything to be updated on the site.(Expedia to Michelle)

And with time running out, our Expedia contact promised to personally correct Funk’s reservation.

The good news: Here is your full refund for the flight United Airlines canceled

And to prove just how problematic this technological issue was to overcome, I can tell you that even our executive contact had difficulties. But, in the end, she was successful. Funk received her full refund.

I will say the virtual assistant takes a while, but it did work eventually. You just have to keep checking in, and eventually, you’ll get a message that says, “help is on the way!” and gives a time frame for when a live agent will be in touch. Once that happened, it was about 40 minutes, and then the agent popped on. Renata will receive a refund of $1,959 for the canceled United Airlines flight. (Expedia to Michelle)

And with that, Funk’s struggle over her canceled United Airlines flight is settled. But our team continues to receive similar complaints every day. If you’re faced with a coronavirus flight cancellation on United Airlines or another airline, here are some tips to help you navigate this situation.

If your airline cancels or “modifies” your flight because of coronavirus, here’s how to get a refund

  • Don’t accept the flight modification
    Over the past few months during the coronavirus crisis, we’ve repeatedly seen airlines and booking agents ask passengers to accept modifications automatically. These emails come as an announcement instead of a suggestion. Remember, you are under no obligation to accept a dramatically changed itinerary. Don’t click the button that says “accept.”
  • Don’t let an airline agent convince you to cancel
    Increasingly, we’re hearing tales of airline agents recommending that passengers cancel their flights before the airline cancels it. (See: This is what happens when your airline convinces you to cancel over coronavirus) Don’t let that happen to you. If you cancel before the airline does, then it will only owe you a future flight credit — minus change fees if no waiver is in place. If there is no benefit for you to cancel right now, wait it out. Waiting it out can be the difference between getting a refund or receiving a voucher you might not be able to use in the future. (See: Don’t let coronavirus panic cause you to cancel your vacation too soon)
  • Use the Elliott Advocacy research team’s company contacts
    Elliott Advocacy has you covered if you can’t reach anyone via the usual channels at the airline or booking agency. You can quickly escalate your refund request using the executive company contacts that our research team has compiled. Make sure to keep careful documentation of your efforts. You might need that paper trail later
  • File a complaint with the Department of Transportation
    If you believe that you are owed a refund for a flight canceled by the airline, and you’re getting nowhere, you can file a complaint with the Department of Transportation. Your airline will be required to respond to you through the DOT within 60 days. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Elliott Advocacy)

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