When an airline cancels your flight, it owes you a refund. When an airline significantly delays your flight or makes a significant schedule change, it owes you a refund. But here’s the rub: The threshold for “significant” has never been defined, leading an to inconsistencies among airlines in when passengers receive refunds.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg proposed on Wednesday defining when airlines should be required to reimburse passengers as a delay of at least three hours for a domestic flight and at least six hours for an international flight.
Buttigieg’s proposal also calls for airlines to provide flight credits or vouchers without expiration dates to passengers who can’t fly due to Covid-related reasons, such as travel bans, closed borders, lockdowns or personal health concerns. Airlines that received significant pandemic relief would be required to issue refunds instead of non-expiring travel credits or vouchers.
Democrats are also looking hard at how airlines are allowed to issue refunds. The default of many airlines is to offer to rebook passengers on another flight or provide vouchers.
Last week, eight Democratic members of Congress introduced a bill to give U.S. travelers more control over how they are compensated for disrupted flights. The proposed Cash Refunds for Flight Cancellations Act would require airlines to offer customers a full cash refund within 30 days if their flight is canceled or significantly delayed less than 48 hours before departure. The bill also contends that passengers should have the right to retroactively request refunds for flights from March 1, 2020 if they have yet to receive compensation.
“It’s bad enough to miss out on vacation time when your flight gets canceled or an emergency pops up. You shouldn’t also have to fight tooth and nail with an airline for your legally required cash refund,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island in a press release.
In general, airline policies have become much more flexible in during the pandemic. Most airlines, including American, Delta and United, have eliminated ticket change fees for standard economy tickets. Last week, Southwest, which never charged ticket change fees even before the pandemic, said any vouchers it issues will never expire.
Both proposals come at a time when airports around the world are tallying roughly 20,000 flight delays and 3,000 cancellations per day, according to FlightAware tracking data.
According to its most recent Air Travel Consumer Report (ATCR) on airline operational data, DOT received 4,344 complaints about airline service from consumers in May. While this was a 15% drop from April, the number of complaints in May was still more than 200% above pre-pandemic levels.
The DOT’s proposed rules are open to public comment for 90 days.