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DOT tells airlines to refund canceled flights, but don't count on cash just yet

Catharine Hamm
The number of fliers has dwindled at LAX since the national emergency was declared.  (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Airline passengers whose flights are canceled or significantly delayed should receive refunds, the Department of Transportation said in a statement, but don’t count on your money back just yet.

A statement Friday noted that that DOT would give airlines a chance to comply first.

DOT said it had received “an increasing number of complaints and inquiries from ticket passengers … who describe having been denied refunds for flights that were canceled or significantly delayed.”

A spokesman said Monday: "The obligation to provide refunds when scheduled flights are canceled or significantly delayed applies to U.S. and foreign carriers operating at least one aircraft having a seating capacity of 30 or more seats to, within, or from the United States."

The department’s Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings is charged with "monitoring airlines’ refund policies and practices, and take enforcement action as necessary. Enforcement action may include, for example, seeking corrective actions through warning letters or issuing consent orders (which may include fines)."

On Monday, a Minnesota man filed a class action suit seeking an airline refund from United for tickets that were to have been used in April. His flight was canceled.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced thousands of flight cancellations as air travel has ground nearly to a halt. Available seats on Delta Airlines, for instance, dropped by more than 3 million from Jan. 20 to April 6, according to OAG, which tracks airline data.

The DOT order applies to U.S. and foreign airlines, the statement said.

But, the statement added, “DOT’s Aviation Enforcement Office will exercise its enforcement discretion and provide carriers with an opportunity to become compliant before taking further action.”

Brett Snyder, a former airline employee who founded the CrankyFlier site that focuses on airline issues, said in an email that the statement “seems like guidance but it isn’t actually an enforcement action.”

Passengers have recently encountered resistance from airlines when trying to get their money back for canceled flights. Some airlines insist that they will issue only a voucher, despite contracts of carriage that say otherwise.

Delta and United have extended the window of validity of that voucher to two years.

But critics have noted that holding the value of that ticket as a credit is tantamount to a loan to the airline. The airlines are to receive billions in grants and loans as part of the economic stimulus package.

On Monday, passenger Jacob Randolph of Minnesota filed a class-action suit against United asking for a refund of his more than $1,500 for three tickets to fly April 4 from Chicago to Hilton Head Island, S.C. The flight was canceled, and United denied Randolph's request for a refund, according to the suit.

United said it could not comment on the suit because the company had not yet seen it.

Nine U.S. senators, including Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.), have written to the chief executives of major U.S. airlines requesting refunds, not vouchers.

The European Union last week told airlines they have to give refunds to passengers whose flights have been canceled.

Assistant travel editor Mary Forgione contributed to this report.