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Coronavirus refunds: Airlines playing hardball

Tribune Content Agency logoTribune Content Agency 3/24/2020 By Ed Perkins, Tribune Content Agency
a large passenger jet sitting on top of a runway: United plane at terminal. © Mvogel/Dreamstime. United plane at terminal.

If an airline cancels a flight on which you have a nonrefundable ticket, you should get a refund, right? Right -- that's a Department of Transportation rule. But if the airline hasn't canceled your flight yet, but has already removed the flight from the timetable, you don't get your money back. Basically, the airlines are playing a game of chicken with you, hoping you'll blink first -- cancel your flight, yourself -- so it doesn't have to cancel before you do and refund your ticket. The airline will happily issue you a credit toward a future flight, but future flight credits come with several major catches:

-- Typically, they're good for no more than a year after original ticket issue. That means if you bought a ticket in January for a flight this April, you must use the credit by the next January, not the next April. And there are a lot of trips you might want to take next March or April that you wouldn't want to take in December or January.

-- Although the airlines generously (?) waive their extortionate ticket-change fee, in all cases I've seen, you have to apply the credit to whatever the going fare might be when you want to use the credit to buy a future flight, not the fare you had previously locked in. And I've heard of some credit vouchers with a "one-bite" limitation: If the ticket you buy with the credit costs less than the value of the credit, the airline keeps the difference.

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-- Credit is usually not transferrable, so if you don't want to or can't fly that airline again over the life of the credit, you're out of luck.

-- Even if you can live with the limits on credit use, the airline is sitting on your money -- money that you might well want to have available for better uses during the current financial crunch.

I can give you a first-hand report on the problem of getting a refund. I currently hold reservations for short one-way flights on United and Air France in April. In both cases, when I check the "manage my trips" menu on United or "my bookings" on Air France, my flight records show both flights confirmed and even "on time." But when I test new bookings on those same flights, neither is still in the airline's posted schedule. United is still showing some flights on the day and route of my trip, but Air France has dropped its service on my route entirely. And, so far, neither airline has notified me of any alternations to my itinerary.

Both U.S. and European regulations require that airlines provide a full monetary refund when an airline cancels a flight on which you have a paid ticket, no matter how nominally "nonrefundable" the ticket might be. But no regulations require full monetary refunds if you, the passenger, initiate cancellation of a flight. The airlines are legally allowed to keep all of some really basic nonrefundable fares and to assess stiff cancellation charges on most other nonrefundable fares. They claim they're being generous in waiving those change fees and offering future credit, even with the stiff limitations on that credit.

Most of the country's leading airline consumer advocacy groups have jointly and separately urged Congress to include mandatory cash-refund and other pro-consumer provisions as a condition of a likely government bailout for airlines. At this final review, Monday morning, I haven't seen the outcome in final legislation. Time permitting, if necessary, I'll be able to update this information before the column distributes.

Meanwhile, for now, I'm accepting the airlines' chicken-game challenge. It's clear that neither of my flights will operate as ticketed, and at some point the airlines will have to cancel those flights. Then they'll have to refund my money. I'm prepared to wait until they do. Illegitimi non carborundum.

WATCH: Pollution in China falls during coronavirus outbreak (provided by CNN)

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(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed's new rail travel website at www.rail-guru.com.)

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