Refund foot-dragging has always been a travel industry tradition. Now it’s getting worse.

Next time an airline promises you a refund, you might want to ask, “How much?”

Gayle DeKellis forgot to do so when Aeroméxico downgraded her and her husband from business class to economy on a recent flight from Mexico City to San Francisco.

“We were assured by Aeroméxico staff that we would receive a refund for the difference between the first-class fare and the coach fare,” says DeKellis, a psychologist in Berkeley, Calif.

It didn’t happen. Initially, the airline balked, saying her fare wasn’t eligible for a refund. Then it offered the couple $100 apiece, claiming that it calculated the refund based on fares on the day of their trip — math that worked to the airline’s advantage, because economy-class fares typically rise just before a flight departs.

By DeKellis’s calculations, they were owed $416, the difference between economy class and business class on the day they purchased their tickets.

Airlines have never been quick to issue refunds, but they’ve become particularly reluctant in cases involving extras such as upgrades, luggage fees and seat assignments. Some airlines consider these fees non-refundable, no matter what happens. There are economic reasons for this hesitation, and, as always, other travel companies are following the airline industry’s lead.

Bottom line for customers: Getting your money back doesn’t mean you’ll be getting all of your money back — at least for now.

An Aeroméxico representative said the carrier conducted an “extensive investigation” on DeKellis and her husband’s tickets and that it had acted appropriately. But it agreed to process a refund of an additional $416 to honor the verbal promise made by one of its employees.

In the case of canceled flights, federal regulations require airlines to refund the price of the ticket. But airlines don’t do so automatically. Why not? There’s a good reason: Most passengers on that canceled flight will still want to reach their destination, and the refund will go toward their new booking. So the policy at American Airlines, the world’s largest airline, is that money doesn’t get refunded unless the traveler specifically asks for it.

“If the passenger requests a refund due to a canceled flight, we will process that refund for the portion of the trip not used,” says American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein. “But most travelers, when a flight is canceled, call us to look at other options.”

Airlines are even more reluctant to issue refunds for fare differences or for so-called ancillary fees, which are not federally regulated — at least not yet. These fees are an enormous business, with North America’s airlines reaping almost $11 billion in what are called a la carte fees in 2015 — a 24 percent increase over what was collected a year before. Airlines aren’t keen on surrendering this revenue, because if you give up enough of it, there goes your profit.

In other words, they don’t have to give it back, and they don’t want to.

The mechanics of refunds are virtually the same whether it’s a refund for a ticket or a fee, according to James Filsinger, the chief executive of the airline price-tracking website Yapta. There are some differences on the back end that should not affect the passenger. Ancillary charges, for example, are managed with something called an Electronic Miscellaneous Document, which basically means that a refund of those charges can appear in your account at a different time than an airfare refund.

One of the reasons fee refunds take longer is that the computer systems used to handle tickets are old and not up to the task. “They didn’t anticipate the airline practice of extracting more fees for what some would consider basic, inclusive services, such as upgrades, preferred seating or checked baggage,” Filsinger says.

But beyond technological failures, refund foot-dragging has always been a travel industry tradition. Now it seems to be getting worse, and consumers suspect the companies are just playing a waiting game, hoping their customers will eventually give up and go away.

Problem is, this institutional resistance to refunds is spilling over to the rest of the travel industry. The case of Nancy Friedman comes to mind. She rented a condo in Santa Barbara, Calif., in December and paid the homeowner a $1,500 deposit.

Friedman could have paid $59 for insurance, but she’s a careful renter and was sure she wouldn’t damage anything. And she didn’t. But after she checked out, the homeowner simply pocketed the deposit. “The property manager stopped answering the phone when we called,” she says. She waited three months (and I had to get involved) before she received her $1,500 back.

At least Friedman didn’t give up. And customers never should — to do so would just encourage this corporate mischief. Now, with the busy summer travel season around the corner, travelers can’t just take a company at face value when they’re promised a refund. The key questions are: When do I get the money, and how much?

And if possible, you need to get that promise in writing. My case files are filled with people who were made promises that the companies had no intention of keeping.

In the end, it may be up to the government to fix this, at least on the airline side. The latest Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill contains a provision that would require airlines to promptly and automatically refund any ancillary fees paid for services that the passenger did not receive on a scheduled flight, on a subsequent replacement itinerary or on a flight canceled by the passenger.

Expect more laws like it, stipulating exactly what an airline must refund. It’s regrettable that regulation is necessary, but to the tens of thousands of customers who are at this moment still waiting for their money back, it’s about time.

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirportParkingReservations.com

With nearly 20 years in the industry, over 128 airport covered in the U.S. and Canada, and over 1,000 Hotel and Parking Partners-we provide travelers the best options on how to get to the airport when flying. Whether you want to; drive yourself and park near an Airport (Airport Parking), stay the night before your flight at an airport hotel and leave your car (Hotel and Parking Package), or take a shared Shuttle/Private Car/Limo to the Airport- we got you covered. The best deals can be found online, and booking a reservation has never been easier. You can explore all of our options by visiting us at AirportParkingReservations.com, ParkSleepFly.com, AirportParking.com, and ShuttleFinder.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by G1G.com

Since its inception over three decades ago, G1G has continued to revolutionize the travel insurance industry by being the only aggregator to operate a customer portal, placing all of the user's primary needs in one place. We have continued to innovate and disrupt the market by reimagining the way travel insurance can be delivered to the end user in ways no competition can. Simply put, no one knows the market as well as its founders and no one else shares G1G values and mission.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Send this to a friend