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Air travelers deserve refunds amid coronavirus disruption: Elaine Chao



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Elaine L. Chao, Opinion Contributor
Published 5:00 a.m. ET May 19, 2020 | Updated 8:59 a.m. ET May 19, 2020

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Many U.S. airlines including American, Southwest, United, Delta, Alaska, Frontier and JetBlue have announced passengers must wear masks while flying.

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Some airlines have issued credits that last several months or years. But to passengers pressed for money because of COVID-19, that may be inadequate.

During the COVID-19 public health emergency, the U.S. Department of Transportation is focused on keeping our country’s national airspace operational and safe. That includes protecting consumers, the aviation workforce, and the economic health of the airlines. 

As Secretary of Transportation, I’m especially concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on airline passengers, many of whom may be facing financial uncertainty. So the department is closely monitoring airline practices regarding refunds, especially for reasons that are beyond the control of passengers. In fact, last week we announced additional steps to further protect consumers and make it easier for airlines to help boost the economic recovery.

As the Treasury Departmentcontinues to disburse $50 billion in support to the nation’s passenger airlines to protect their workers, the Department of Transportation has made it clear that cancellation and refund requirements are still in effect. In fact, they are more important than ever. Providing refunds is a long-standing practice when air travel has been disrupted on a large scale such as after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and presidentially-declared natural disasters. DOT continues to emphasize the importance of refunds today.

Passengers deserve refunds

On April 3, 2020, DOT issued an Enforcement Notice reminding airlines that the law requires them to offer passengers prompt refunds for flights that are canceled or significantly delayed by the airline. Last week the department also issued an additional enforcement notice clarifying the obligations airlines have to paying customers, such as the definition of a “prompt” refund.

Meanwhile, DOT has received an unprecedented volume of complaints from passengers seeking refunds and is examining this issue closely to ensure that airlines’ policies and practices conform to its refund rules. The department will also examine any instances where an airline may have misled its passengers about the status of a flight in order to avoid having to offer ticket refunds.

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Many Americans, who canceled their reservations based on COVID-19 health concerns, are seeking refunds for the non-refundable tickets they purchased but could not use.  After the president declared a national emergency on March 13 and states directed people to stay at home, it’s understandable that many people who had previously booked tickets for travel during the spring and summer months would have no choice but to cancel those bookings. They deserve fair treatment.

Voucher or credit may not be enough 

Some airlines have issued credits that last several months or years, which is acceptable for some passengers. But to passengers who are pressed for money because of COVID-19, a voucher or credit may not be adequate. Only a handful of airlines have begun fully refunding these passengers. I am asking all airlines to reconsider their customer service policies, so that these policies are as flexible and considerate as possible to the needs of passengers. That’s so important for travelers who are facing financial hardship during this unprecedented time.

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Since the April 3 enforcement notice, some carriers have significantly improved their refund and credit policies. That is encouraging. Others should follow suit. Additionally, it’s important for our country’s economic recovery that the airlines continue maximum service to destinations all over America. The department has also taken steps to ensure this.

As always, the department’s commitment to the traveling public is at the forefront of everything we do. 

Elaine L. Chao is the U.S. Secretary of Transportation. Follow her on Twitter: @SecElaineChao. To learn more about air passenger rights or to file a formal complaint, visit us here.

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