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Note: This is an updated version of a post that I first published back in March when the current crisis was only just breaking. With a large number of people seemingly still unable to get the refunds they’re owed and with airlines still pushing customers into accepting vouchers for future travel, it seems appropriate to remind readers of where they stand when an airline cancels their flight(s) in the time of Covid-19.
Throughout this current travel crisis, a significant number of airlines have been doing their very best to make it very hard for customers to request a refund when their trips have been canceled or they’ve been giving passengers the impression that they’re not entitled to a refund in the first place. The good news here is that, in a number of jurisdictions, the rules and laws are firmly on the side of the consumer, but if you don’t know what the rules and regulations say, it’s easy for an airline to pull the wool over your eyes.
This post aims to inform readers with bookings to/from/within the United States and/or the European Union (and select associated nations) what their rights are when an airline cancels their flight(s) in the era of Covid-19.
What Do The Rules Say?
First and foremost let’s get one thing very clear: The current pandemic does not allow airlines to ignore the rule of law in the countries they operate within, to and from.
Airlines cannot pick and choose which laws they’ll adhere to and which they ignore and this applies as much to situations where an airline cancels a traveler’s flight(s) as it does to any other situation that may arise.
In the United States the Department of Transport (DoT) regulations on canceled flights are very clear:
If your flight is canceled and you choose to cancel your trip as a result, you are entitled to a refund for the unused transportation – even for non-refundable tickets. You are also entitled to a refund for any bag fee that you paid, and any extras you may have purchased, such as a seat assignment.
The DoT goes on to say the following:
If the airline offers you a voucher for future travel instead of a refund, you should ask the airline about any restrictions that may apply, such as blackout and expiration dates, advanced booking requirements, and limits on number of seats.
As far as the law in the European Union goes (yes, this still covers the UK), this is the advice:
If your cancelled [short-haul, medium-haul or long-haul] flight is covered by EU law, your airline must let you choose between two options:
1. Receive a refund
You can get your money back for all parts of the ticket you haven’t used. For instance, if you have booked a return flight and the outbound leg is cancelled, you can get the full cost of the return ticket back from your airline.
2. Choose an alternative flight
If you still want to travel, your airline must find you an alternative flight. It’s up to you whether to fly as soon as possible after the cancelled flight, or at a later date that suits you. Airlines often refer to this as being ‘rerouted’.
Although most airlines will book you onto another of their flights to the same destination, if an alternative airline is flying there significantly sooner then you may have the right to be booked onto that flight instead. You can discuss this with your airline.
Where Do These Rules Apply?
The US Department of Transport rules (DoT rules) cover all flights to, from, and within the United States regardless of the airline providing the transportation.
European legislation applies to all flights departing from the European Union (and select Eurozone countries) regardless of the airline providing the transportation, as well as to all airlines based in the European Union (and select Eurozone countries) irrespective of the routing (link).
For clarity, a flight is covered by EU law if it departs from or arrives into:
- Any EU member country (including the UK)
The home country of an airline has no bearing on whether or not it is subject to EU law.
What Have The Airlines Been Doing?
A number of airlines (like British Airways, United Airlines, SWISS, and Lufthansa) have been making it deliberately difficult for passengers to request refunds by either:
- Forcing them to call in and wait on hold for hours for a refund (when refunds were previously requestable online)
- Directing them to areas of their websites which suggest that they’ll be offered a refund but which actually only offer them the option to request a voucher for future travel (British Airways is very guilty of this)
- Lying to them by saying that they cannot process refunds at all and letting them believe that a travel voucher is their only viable option.
Other airlines (like American and Qantas) have been trying to persuade customers not to request the cash refunds to by offering them incentives on top of the travel vouchers they’re automatically entitled to.
In all these cases, what the airlines are trying to do is to minimize the amount of cash they have to give back to travelers so that they can shore up their own finances and, by issuing travel vouchers, airlines are effectively getting customers to provide them with interest-free loans. Moreover, not only are the travel vouchers effectively interest-free loans to the airlines, but they’re also loans that expire.
Most of the travel vouchers that the airlines are currently issuing are valid for a period no longer than 24 months from when the originally booked travel was due to take place so if a passenger doesn’t use their voucher(s) in that time, the voucher is useless and the airline owes them nothing in return. That’s a phenomenal deal for the airline and can be a very poor deal for the customer.
Know The Risks
No one knows what the airline industry will look like in 12, 18, or 24 month’s time and there’s a very real chance that not all the airlines in existence today will be in existence when all of this has blown over…at least not in their current guise. Airlines around the world have spent all of the spring and summer begging their governments to bail them out of trouble and although most have had their wishes granted (at least temporarily), some airlines are still teetering on the brink.
Yes, eventually most (probably all) of the bigger carriers are likely to be bailed out in one way or another (some more than once), but there’s absolutely no guarantee what all of those bailouts will look like and there’s still a chance (at least in some jurisdictions) that passengers holding promissory notes for future travel from a distressed airline may see themselves categorized as unsecured creditors and, as a result, never see a dime of value out of their travel vouchers.
If you have the legal right to a cash refund why would you put yourself in a position where you have exchanged that cash for a voucher that may turn out to be worthless?
Sure, as I’ve already mentioned, some airlines are offering added incentives to passengers who accept a voucher for future travel in place of a full refund, and if the airline in question is one that has been bailed out already or is an airline that is unlikely to be allowed to collapse into oblivion (e.g. the major US carriers), accepting those incentives may be a smart choice for people who know they’ll be able to make the most of those incentives and travel credits before they expire.
Everyone else should be very aware of what the rules and regulations covering their bookings say and should be prepared to quote those rules (when relevant) to any airline that is very obviously trying to circumvent those rules.
If an airline has canceled your flight(s) to/from/within the United States or the European Union (and select European countries that are not part of the EU) you are legally entitled to 100% of what you originally paid in the original currency you used – that means that you’re entitled to all the money you handed over (fares + surcharges + taxes + ancillary fees) as well as any miles, points, and co-pays that you handed over.
It is not your job as a traveler to support billion-dollar corporations with interest-free loans (that you may never see repaid). Get your money back and don’t settle for vouchers unless the airline in question is sound and is prepared to offer you an added incentive to accept a voucher.