Money flying away

What should you do if your airline won’t refund your ticket?

Airlines don’t like to refund your ticket, even when they have to. But no air carrier is more reluctant than TAP Air Portugal.

During the pandemic, the Portuguese airline illegally forced passengers to accept vouchers for their canceled flights. It promised refunds to other customers but then didn’t follow through.

Emma Escobar is one of them. In February 2020, she booked three round-trip tickets from New York to Lisbon.

“When COVID hit, TAP canceled the flights,” she says.

TAP offered her vouchers, which she accepted. Unfortunately, she couldn’t use the airline’s funny money and now wants a full refund for her tickets. She’s been waiting since March.

The biggest refund scandal in modern aviation

It is difficult to overstate the scale of this airline ticket refund failure. From late March 2020 until today, Elliott Advocacy has received 957 requests for help with TAP Air Portugal refunds. I’ve never seen so many cases at once. Some of them remain unresolved to this day.

Portuguese media reports that “hundreds” of customers are waiting for refunds. But it’s likely tens of thousands. TAP is the most-complained-about airline in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Practically all of the complaints are about refunds.

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The TAP refund problems represent the biggest non-bankruptcy refund failure in modern aviation history.

I can’t recall anything on this scale — ever.

So what’s going on here? And what does TAP have to say about this? Also, what can you do if your airline doesn’t want to refund your ticket, even if it’s required?

Passengers are getting the runaround on ticket refunds

Escobar’s case is pretty typical. At the start of the pandemic, TAP Air Portugal insisted that everyone with canceled flights — no matter the reason for the cancellation — accept vouchers. But regulators say when an airline cancels the flight, you can ask for a full refund or a voucher.

TAP Air Portugal did it to conserve cash. But in May 2020, regulators reminded the carrier that under EU rules, travelers have the right to choose between vouchers or cash reimbursement for canceled transport tickets. EU officials frowned upon TAP’s aggressive issuing of vouchers, and that became an issue when the airline asked for EU aid.

So apparently, rather than refuse a refund, TAP just did the next best thing. It dramatically slowed down the process.

Hey TAP, where’s my $2,200?

Consider what happened to Escobar. After two years of being unable to use the vouchers, she asked TAP for a full refund of her $2,200 in airline tickets. But so far, she’s received nothing.

“I have called several times to get updates,” she says. “A representative told me that it approved the refunds but that there is a backup to get the actual refund.”

She called TAP Air Portugal again the same day she contacted me. This time, a representative told her it couldn’t refund her because it didn’t have her banking information. But she’d made the reservation with a credit card.

“I do not feel comfortable giving out my banking information,” she said.

Escobar appealed that decision, and a TAP representative finally agreed to refund her credit card. Her money would be back in her account “a few days,” he promised.

“I really doubt this will happen,” she says.

That makes two of us.

I’ve asked for her documentation and will share it with my TAP contact when she sends it. But I’m not sure if it will do any good.

Christopher interviews TAP Air Portugal CEO Christine Ourmières-Widener at the airline's headquarters in Lisbon.
Christopher interviews TAP Air Portugal CEO Christine Ourmières-Widener at the airline’s headquarters in Lisbon.

What’s going on with TAP Air Portugal?

Why is TAP stalling? Why won’t it refund its tickets, as required?

Maybe it can’t. The airline, which is majority-owned by the Portuguese government, lost $1.74 billion in the latest quarter. That EU rescue plan was worth more than $3 billion and saved the airline. But it also forced TAP to reduce its fleet and eliminate more than 2,900 jobs.

Of course, TAP is trying to conserve cash anywhere it can — even if it means tapping the brakes on its ticket refunds.

In November, I interviewed TAP’s CEO, Christine Ourmières-Widener, and asked her about the refund situation.

“It’s a very complex situation,” she told me. “But we are down to one to two percent of the refund requests. I get the messages from passengers who want refunds — they find me on Linkedin and Instagram. We apologize for these delays. We are processing everything we can.”

After our interview, a TAP manager approached me and asked how many TAP ticket refund cases I had. “Hundreds,” I said. She asked me to forward them to her, and I did.

But the refund cases just kept coming in. It was as if the executive department was saying one thing to me but another to its accounting department. We’re doing all we can but pay as slowly as possible.

On Monday, I contacted the same managers to find out why we’re continuing to get pounded by refund requests.

The response? Nothing.

TAP CEO says refunds are "complicated."
TAP’s CEO said the refund situation is “complicated.”

How to get your money back when an airline won’t refund

TAP is hardly the only airline that likes to stall on ticket refunds. I just had an Alitalia case where a passenger waited almost a year. I’m also working on an Aegean Airlines case where a reader is waiting for a refund for tickets booked before the pandemic.

Getting money back from an airline when it’s unwilling is difficult. But you have a few options:

Contact the airline and make a polite but firm request

Many refund requests happen either by phone or on the airline website. You have to take it up a notch if you want to move to the top of the stack. We publish the names, numbers and email addresses of every airline on this site. A polite but firm request sent to a manager in writing may be enough to fast-track your refund request. If you booked through a large online agency, try contacting it. We’ve had cases where the agency pushed a refund through quickly.

Ask regulators to help you with your refund

The Department of Transportation can assist with tickets purchased in the United States. If you’re owed a refund but haven’t received it yet, a complaint sent to the DOT may motivate your airline to move faster. If you’re in Europe, you’ll need to find the country’s regulatory agency and file a complaint. It may feel like you’re sending your information into a black hole, but complaints often get results.

File a credit card dispute

Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, you can file a chargeback for goods or services purchased but not received. Some banks will tell you that you have 60 days to file a chargeback from the time you receive your credit card bill. But both Visa and MasterCard allow chargebacks up to 120 days from the transaction date. They extend it by another 120 days when there’s a bankruptcy. Remember, a credit card dispute should be your last resort when you need a refund. Give the airline a chance to do the right thing.

Can I call a consumer advocate to speed up my airline refund?

You could call our advocacy team for help. But I reviewed our TAP cases. We’ve resolved only five TAP Air Portugal refund cases since 2020. Here’s the last one.

And it’s not for lack of trying. My team has repeatedly encouraged TAP to send its customers the money it owes for tickets.

If you send us a TAP case, we’ll review it and try to share it with our contacts at the airline. But something tells me that their hands are tied, too. Ultimately, someone at TAP is keeping these refunds from happening promptly.

If you don’t want to become another statistic, the only advice I can offer is this: Don’t book a flight on TAP until it sorts this out.

What will happen to my TAP Air Portugal refund request?

If you’re reading this and TAP owes you a refund, you’re probably wondering: What will happen to my money?

I remember the first of the 900-some TAP Air Portugal refund requests that landed in my inbox in March 2020. It came from Anita Gonzales. She had booked two one-way tickets on TAP from San Francisco to Munich in business class.

“These tickets are supposed to be fully refundable,” she explained. “But now they are saying only a voucher is available — with a limited time frame to use.”

Gonzales was shocked.

“Who knows if they will even fly our routes in the future?” she says. “It doesn’t seem right.”

It wasn’t right. Gonzales went to our old forum, where our advocates advised her to dispute the charges on her card. (We decommissioned the forum in late 2021 and now operate a public Facebook Group where we help consumers.)

I followed up with her earlier this week to find out what happened.

“TAP went radio silent on us,” she says. “We received a chargeback successfully from our credit card.”

I believe most, if not all, of these refund requests, will get resolved — eventually. But it should not have to take two years.

TAP can do better.

What do you think? Should an airline get to keep your money during an extraordinary event, like a pandemic?

Airlines like TAP have argued that they should be able to issue vouchers in an “extraordinary” event like a pandemic. What do you think? Also, how much money do you think TAP saved — or made — from the slower refunds? That’s a question for the economists reading this. Scroll down to leave a comment.

About the art

Artist Aren Elliott imagined flying dollar emojis colliding with an aircraft for his latest illustration. He wondered what would happen if one got sucked into an engine.

About the video

Producer Iden Elliott used an Anime on-screen soundtrack to paint a dark picture of the TAP Air Portugal refund scandal. “I tried to dramatize the problem by using sound effects and lighting,” he says. Putting yours truly in sunglasses gave the whole video a Men in Black vibe.

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