US DOT Secretary urged to require airline refunds for travel disrupted by COVID-19

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US DOT Secretary urged to require airline refunds for travel disrupted by COVID-19

Consumer Reports called on US Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao today to use her authority to require airlines to provide refunds to passengers whose travel was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.  CR is renewing its call for Secretary Chao to take action in light of a new DOT report showing a huge number of complaints from consumers frustrated by the airlines response to the crisis.

After the DOT recently received a record number of complaints, Secretary Chao reminded airlines in May of their obligation to provide refunds to consumers when the carriers cancel their flights.  She further noted that many consumers who were forced to cancel their travel due to health or safety concerns are seeking refunds.  While she called on airlines to treat these passengers fairly, she stopped short of taking any action that would compel the airlines to do so.

“The Department of Transportation has been flooded with complaints from consumers who were unfairly denied refunds for canceled travel,” said Anna Laitin, director of financial fairness and legislative strategy for Consumer Reports.  “Some are afraid to fly because they are in a high risk category for COVID-19 while others simply need a refund because they’ve lost their job and are strapped for cash.  Secretary Chao has a duty to protect airline passengers and should immediately take action to ensure they get the refunds they deserve.”

Under current law, Secretary Chao has the authority to declare the airlines’ refusal to provide refunds to be “unfair” and unlawful and require that they return consumer’s money.  Previous Transportation secretaries have used this same authority to require airlines to include all fees in advertised fares and adopt strong security measures following 9/11.

According to the latest DOT report, consumers submitted nearly 20,000 complaints during the month of April, with more than 17,000 of those complaints from customers upset that they could not get a refund for canceled flights.  United has the highest number of refund-related complaints in April with 2,727.  During the months of March and April, the Department has received about 25,000 complaints, with more than 20,000 of those specifically related to refunds. 

CR has heard from thousands of people across the country who reported that the airlines are only giving travel vouchers for canceled flights instead of cash refunds.  While passengers on flights cancelled by airlines are entitled to a full refund under federal law, some carriers are offering vouchers as the default option, forcing passengers to take extra steps to get their money back. 


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