The airline owes me a refund. What can I do?

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By Christopher Elliott

What if an airline owes you a refund, but refuses to return your money?  That’s the question Scott Cocking recently brought to the Elliott Advocacy team.


I booked a flight from Kathmandu to New York via Dubai on Emirates through the U.S. Emirates site. I canceled the flight within 24 hours and requested a refund.

Under U.S. regulations, the airline owes me a full refund. But Emirates is claiming that the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) 24-hour rule only applies to flights departing the United States. They point to their policy on the website as “proof” that it doesn’t qualify.

I contend upon reviewing the policy that it applies to all scheduled U.S. airlines; and foreign airlines with flights departing or arriving in the U.S. when the flights are booked directly on their U.S. website and the flights are booked more than seven days out. The only exclusion for flight departures outside the U.S. is for charter airlines.

Thus, Emirates Airlines owes me a full refund under this regulation. Their refusal to provide it constitutes an unfair and deceptive practice under the DOT guidance.

This seems to be a fairly widespread issue with many foreign airlines that is the cause of many consumer complaints. As such, I hope this issue might be interesting for you to review as part of a much larger problem. — Scott Cocking, New York


I agree with your interpretation of the 24-hour rule. According to guidance issued by the Department of Transportation, both U.S. and foreign carriers must comply with the 24-hour rule:

This notice provides guidance to U.S. and foreign air carriers regarding compliance with the customer service rule that requires carriers to hold a reservation at the quoted fare for 24 hours without payment or allow a reservation to be cancelled within 24 hours without penalty (the “24- hour reservation requirement”). The 24-hour reservation requirement is mandated by the Department of Transportation’s consumer rule “Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections” (14 CFR 259.5(b)(4), 76 Fed. Reg. 23110, 23166, Apr. 25, 2011) and applies to all reservations made seven days or more prior to the flight’s scheduled departure time.

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I think foreign airlines are trying to get off on a technicality. The DOT may need to further clarify its rule in order to put an end to the confusion.

For now, though, let’s deal with your issue. When you asked Emirates for a refund, it cited the following policy from its site:

  • For itineraries booked on that originate from the US, where the booking is made seven days or more prior to flight departure, you may request a refund within 24 hours of booking without penalty.

So, for the 24-hour rule to apply, your flight must originate in the U.S. — not Nepal. (Related: Where’s the outrage?)

You called and wrote to the airline and eventually, it agreed that it owed you a refund of your taxes and fees.

That wasn’t enough for you — or me.

Why should an airline offer a refund within 24 hours?

The airline should offer a refund within 24 hours because it’s the right thing to do. Most tickets are completely nonrefundable, so once that day has passed, you’re stuck with your ticket. What’s more, I’m unaware of any credible evidence that the 24-hour rule has cost the airline industry a dollar — or a dirham. The 24-hour rule is just common courtesy, which is why it surprises me that Emirates, an airline with a great reputation for customer service, is denying you a full refund. (Related: They canceled the flight anyway — can I get a refund?)

The resolution to your case involved a multi-pronged approach. First, you were relentless with your refund request, which is always important when an airline says “no.” You called, you wrote, and you appealed. (By the way, the Elliott Advocacy research team has compiled the names, numbers and email addresses of the Emirates customer service managers.)

The DOT: Yes, the airline owes you a refund. Here it is

After we reviewed your paper trail, my advocacy team and I felt you should get the DOT involved. Here’s how to file a complaint with the DOT.

DOT reached out to Emirates on your behalf. Initially, the airline turned it down. DOT then clarified its policy with Emirates, which resulted in Emirates issuing a full refund. I think you’ve just set an important precedent for other air travelers. If an airline sells tickets from a U.S. site — even if the flight doesn’t originate in the U.S. — it is bound by the 24-hour rule.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Los Angeles.

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