Illustration depicting refund for air travel, showing a pile of money, an airplane, and a cloud

A group of five Democratic senators today proposed legislation to guarantee a full cash refund to travelers who purchased airline tickets but couldn't fly because of the coronavirus pandemic—whether their flights were officially canceled or not. 

Since the pandemic began grounding flights in March, many ticketed consumers have been offered credits or vouchers for future travel instead.  

But with the pandemic sending unemployment to record levels, vouchers are simply not adequate, consumer advocates say.

“Many people need that money now,” says John Breyault, vice president, public policy, telecommunications, and fraud at the National Consumers League. Other consumers simply have no plans to fly anytime soon and have no use for a voucher.

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Indeed, more than 25,000 complaints and inquiries—many concerning refunds—were filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) in March and April, up from an average of 1,500 per month, according to a May 13 statement.

And thousands of consumers have written to Consumer Reports to express their frustration about being unable to get their money back when the coronavirus pandemic canceled their trips.

Jan Themann of Plantation, Fla., for example, had invited her 86-year-old father to fly in from suburban New York to attend her son’s graduation from college. When the graduation was canceled due to COVID-19, her father tried to get back his $341.96 from Southwest but was offered only a credit that expires in a year.

“My dad joked that at his age he doesn't know what's going to happen in a year. But really, to expect an 86-year-old to get on a plane any time soon isn't reasonable," she says. “He lives on a fixed income and could really use that money. Meanwhile, the airlines are getting bailed out. I’m just really frustrated.”

What the Law Would Do

If passed, the Cash Refunds for Coronavirus Cancellations Act of 2020 would address two separate aspects of the refund problem. 

The first concerns passengers whose flights were canceled. They're entitled to full refunds under current law. But many airlines have been offering vouchers by default, neglecting to inform consumers that refunds are an option. And the COVID-19 sections of many airline websites either don’t mention refunds or do so in tiny, hard-to-spot print. 

The proposed law would allow airlines to offer vouchers to passengers whose flights were canceled, but only if they offer refunds at the same time and in a “clear and conspicuous” way.  

The second issue involves passengers whose flights weren't canceled but who, heeding public health recommendations, decided not to fly. Current law does not entitle them to refunds, and most major airlines have been offering these consumers only vouchers. 

The problem with this, say consumer advocates, is that the question of who cancels the flight—airline or passenger—is irrelevant in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, with public health officials counseling everyone to avoid all but essential travel. 

“This is a national emergency. To apply rules put in place before this is wrong,” says CR aviation adviser William J. McGee. “If you want a voucher, great. But everyone who wants a refund should be entitled to get it, whether or not the flight was officially canceled.” 

Many consumers, advocates say, have no use for vouchers because they were traveling for one-time events or will no longer be able to afford their planned vacations. 

“Consumers are being put in an impossible position: Either follow advice of the CDC and local health officials, or eat the cost of their ticket,” says Breyault. Forcing consumers to make that choice, he says, has the perverse effect of encouraging them to fly.

Making matters worse is that airlines are delaying the decision to cancel flights in order to pressure more consumers to accept vouchers, Breyault says.

“Basically, they’re playing a game of chicken,” he says. “They’re waiting to cancel flights until as close as possible to the departure date—hoping consumers will call first, so they won’t have to give out as many refunds.” 

The major airlines point out that they’re complying with federal law. They say that since the COVID-19 crisis began, they've allowed consumers to change their travel plans for no fee and have extended the length of time during which credits or vouchers for future travel may be used. 

In addition, airlines maintain that they simply can’t give everyone refunds and still survive the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis. During testimony before the senate commerce committee on May 6, Nicholas Calio, CEO of industry trade association Airlines for America, said the practice of giving vouchers instead of refunds “underscores the economic reality that if air carriers refund all tickets, including those purchased under the condition of being non-refundable or those cancelled by a passenger instead of the carrier, this will result in negative cash balances that will lead to bankruptcy.”  

The proposed law would require airlines to promptly offer a cash refund whether the flight is canceled by the airline or the passenger decides not to fly. It would also require that any voucher or credits that passengers receive in lieu of a refund remain valid indefinitely, rather than for the one or two years the airlines are currently allowing. 

What to Do Now

CR advocates, who have collected more than 89,000 signatures on a petition demanding cash refunds from airlines, support the proposed legislation. But unless and until it passes, getting your money back may take a little work. 

Two general pieces of advice will help everyone. First, be persistent. Airlines are hoping that most consumers will not pursue refunds, McGee says. But anecdotal evidence—based on several thousand consumer experiences reported to CR—suggests that some airlines will give you a cash refund if you persist in asking for one. 

The second: Be prepared. “You'd be surprised how many people wait on hold to request a refund but don't know the flight number or the date,” says McGee. You’ll need dates, times, flight numbers, airports, reservation or record locator numbers (if possible), and the names of any personnel you have contacted. Otherwise, there’s a risk airlines will dismiss the claim out of hand. 

Depending on which of the following scenarios you fall into, the following tactics may also help: 

Your flight has been canceled. If your flight does not take off, you are clearly entitled to a cash refund—as the Department of Transportation (DOT) made clear in two recent statements clarifying the law, the first on April 3 and the second on May 12.

When you call, airline agents might try to convince you to accept a credit or voucher instead. Some airlines have extended the voucher expiration to two years, up from the more typical one year. Some are also offering a 20 or 30 percent “bonus” beyond the value of your ticket for accepting a voucher. If that works for you, fine. 

But if you need or want the money right away, insist on it. The law is clearly on your side. 

If you still don’t get your refund, check out the final piece of advice below. 

You already accepted a voucher for a canceled flight. Some consumers might have received refunds had they insisted—but didn’t know they were legally entitled to them and accepted vouchers for future travel when the airlines offered that option instead. 

Not a problem: The law says you can still get your money back. In fact, the DOT’s April 3 notice threatened airlines with enforcement action unless they actively notify passengers who received vouchers that a refund is still an option. 

Unfortunately, says Breyault, the notice required such action only “in a timely manner.” So if you still want a refund for a canceled flight, don’t wait for the airline to reach out. Call and insist on it. 

Your flight wasn’t canceled but you decided not to fly. Unless and until the new bill becomes law, airlines are not legally required to refund tickets for the minority of scheduled flights that eventually took off. 

According to an April analysis by four Democratic senators, a couple of airlines, Allegiant and Spirit, have been offering cash refunds to passengers who cancel their own flights—though reports to CR from consumers suggest they aren't doing so consistently. 

For other airlines, McGee recommends calling the airline repeatedly and making sure to point out that government authorities and experts have recommended that you not fly.

“It does require work,” he says. “But we’re hearing scattered reports of happy endings.”

Your flight is coming up but hasn’t yet been canceled. Perhaps the largest category of consumers is stuck in a kind of refund limbo: Their upcoming flights have not yet been officially canceled, so they don’t yet know whether the airline will offer a cash refund or not. 

The strategy here is to play along with the game of chicken, as Breyault calls it. 

If you have a pending flight, McGee recommends walking the line between being patient and proactive. Hold off canceling your flight and see whether the airline does it for you. If it gets canceled, you shouldn’t have trouble getting a cash refund if you insist on it. 

If it doesn't get canceled, McGee suggests you start calling 14 days before your flight is scheduled, and make sure you advise the airline that government authorities and experts have recommended that you not fly.

You’ve done everything suggested and still didn’t get your money back. If all else fails, you do have a couple of fall-back options. 

One is to dispute the charges with your credit card company. Credit card charges for services that have not been delivered can be disputed via the Fair Credit Billing Act. The Federal Trade Commission offers advice on how to do it

The other is to report your concern to the authorities, who may get involved based on your complaint—and who, in many cases, take action only after a certain number of consumers have filed grievances. 

For U.S. flights, send a copy of your complaint to the Department of Transportation, using this online form. For flights to, from, or within Europe, the European Commission advises that you fill out this complaint form and send it to the appropriate national enforcement bodies in the countries you are traveling, using this list of addresses.