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Update: US DoT Enforcement Notice Wording Added
There are a number of questions surrounding the current crisis that I’m receiving over and over again but one question has been dominating my inbox for over a week: Can passengers who have been duped into accepting an airline voucher request that the airline converts that voucher into a refund?
Before I go any further, allow me to make a couple of things clear:
- If you’re flying in jurisdictions covered by US or European law, an airline will owe you a refund if it cancels your flight(s). It doesn’t matter where the airline is based and it doesn’t matter if the airline claims that the cancellation was due to government regulations surrounding Covid-19 – a refund is due if the passenger was not responsible for the cancellation.
- If you choose to cancel a trip because you don’t wish to fly and the airline didn’t cancel your flights, the airline does not owe you a refund. As long as the airline isn’t the party canceling the flights the most that the passenger is owed is whatever the airline chooses to offer (right now, most airlines are offering vouchers for future travel).
On the face of things that’s all very clear but, thanks to the way a lot of airlines have been behaving, that’s not where the story ends.
A lot of airlines have been making it deliberately difficult for passengers to request refunds when their trips have been canceled, and a worrying number have been giving passengers the impression that they’re not entitled to a refund even if they are (most airlines are doing whatever they can to preserve cash reserves right now). This has lead to a significant number of airline customers accepting vouchers for future travel when they should have been getting their money back, and because passengers are now starting to find out that they’ve been duped into accepting a voucher, a lot of them are understandably annoyed and want to take the airlines to task.
There’s good news and there’s bad news and you’ll need to know if you’re covered by US regulations or EU regulations if you’re to know if your news is good or bad.
- 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).
Note: Airlines cannot select which rules to adhere to so, if two sets of rules cover the same trip, a flyer can cite the more favorable rules and the airline has to abide by those rules.
If your trip falls under the jurisdiction of the US DoT, any airline that has issued a passenger with a voucher when that passenger was entitled to a refund must inform that passenger that they’re entitled to a refund if they want it.
Here’s the exact wording from the DoT (link) (thanks to Ben):
“In recognition of the fact that the COVID-19 public health emergency has had major impacts on the airline industry, the Aviation Enforcement Office will exercise its prosecutorial discretion and provide carriers an opportunity to become compliant before taking further action. Specifically, the Aviation Enforcement Office will refrain from pursuing an enforcement action against a carrier that provided passengers vouchers for future travel in lieu of refunds for cancelled or significantly delayed flights during the COVID-19 public health emergency so long as: (1) the carrier contacts, in a timely manner, the passengers provided vouchers for flights that the carrier cancelled or significantly delayed to notify those passengers that they have the option of a refund; (2) the carrier updates its refund policies and contract of carriage provisions to make clear that it provides refunds to passengers if the carrier cancels a flight or makes a significant schedule change; and (3) the carrier reviews with its personnel, including reservationists, ticket counter agents, refund personnel, and other customer service professionals, the circumstances under which refunds should be made.”
That’s the good news.
For passengers whose canceled trips fall under EU legislation things aren’t so good. Because the EU regulators have not issued similar guidance to the US DoT (a little surprising considering just how much more consumer-friendly EU legislation is when it comes to airlines) the stark reality is this:
If you have accepted a voucher for future travel from an airline but were due a refund, you’re going to find it next to impossible to get the airline to convert that voucher into cash.
Airlines are generally very careful with the terms and conditions they append to their vouchers and if you delve down into the small print you’re almost certain to find words which say that by accepting a voucher you waive your right to any other form of recompense (I haven’t accepted any vouchers so I cannot provide example terms and conditions here) – this is why so many airlines are incredibly keen to get passengers to accept vouchers if they possibly can.
Once you’ve accepted a voucher that’s (generally) it.
A notable exception to this is Emirates who, rather amazingly, has now got one of the most generous cancellation policies I’ve ever seen after originally being one of the better known airlines that were refusing refunds.
This is not to say that it’s not worth asking an airline for a refund in exchange for a voucher that you feel you were duped into accepting (what’s the worst that can happen?) but you should be aware that you’re highly unlikely to be successful.
I’m aware that some people are challenging airlines like British Airways on the grounds that they were led to a page that only offered a voucher by a button that indicated a refund was possible…
…and they may eventually have some success…but it will be a very long a drawn-out process that is in no way guaranteed to end with a positive outcome. It may even require a petition in small claims court.
If you’re covered by US regulations and have been issued with a voucher for a cancellation that you did not instigate you should contact your airline for a refund. If the airline refuses a refund, you should file a complaint with the DoT.
If your trip is only covered by European regulations and you’re suddenly finding out that you were due a full refund from an airline that duped you into accepting a voucher you’re not on your own and you have my sympathy…but I can’t really offer you any more than that.
Barring an unprecedented and incredibly unlikely u-turn buy one or more of the offending airlines, passengers who have accepted vouchers for future travel are almost certainly stuck with those vouchers and will not be able to get a refund from the airlines – cash is the most important thing to airlines right now and they’re not going to give any of it up if they can possibly avoid it.