Patrick Semansky / AP
The Department of Transportation is cracking down on airlines that refuse to give refunds to customers for canceled flights.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced Monday that the department is assessing fines totaling $ 7.5 million against six airlines and the DOT is ordering those airlines to pay $ 600 million in refunds in the hundreds of thousands. of customers who had been denied.
“When a flight is canceled, passengers claiming reimbursement should be reimbursed promptly,” Buttigieg said. “Whenever this does not happen, we will take action to hold the airlines accountable on behalf of American travelers and return their money to the passengers.”
“Canceling a flight is frustrating enough and you don’t even have to bargain or wait months to get a refund,” he said.
Airlines are required to pay refunds to customers when a flight is canceled for any reason, but often, in an effort to withhold cash, many airlines offer vouchers or credits for future travel instead of a refund.
Airlines ‘refusal to return passengers’ money became a huge source of consumer complaints, especially during the early days of the pandemic when hardly anyone flew.
Bill McGee, an aviation consumer advocate with the American Economic Liberties Project, cites data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics showing complaints filed against airlines for refusing to provide refunds soared in 2020 to more than 89,000. , 57 times more than around 1,500 in 2019.
“It’s truly unprecedented,” says McGee. “We have never seen anything like it.”
Buttigieg says DOT will make sure refunds are available and processed promptly
A big problem was that would-be travelers often canceled their plans due to the pandemic and significant travel restrictions in place, but the airline didn’t cancel the flight until the last minute. In those cases, airlines usually weren’t required to offer refunds, but many offered vouchers or credits for future travel instead. But those vouchers and credits often expired before some people could travel or feel comfortable again.
And delays, cancellations, and significant changes to flight schedules became a significant problem this year, as airlines initially scheduled more flights than they had staff to operate.
Buttigieg says airline operations have improved in recent months after a horrendous summer of flight disruptions.
“But anyway, flights are canceled. And when that happens, DOT will be here to make sure a refund is available and processed as quickly as possible, that we will have people’s backs when they get disrupted, Buttigieg told reporters. at a press conference on Zoom on Monday.
But consumer lawyer Bill McGee isn’t so sure. While he says these law enforcement actions are a small step in the right direction, “It’s really too little too late. The fact is, the biggest offenders here don’t seem to be addressed.”
It notes that only one relatively small US carrier, Frontier, was punished, along with five foreign carriers (six if you include Air Canada, which was fined by the DOT last year). And he agrees that Frontier “is one of the worst offenders.
“Why have none of these other airlines been fined?”
But it says consumers have filed thousands of complaints against United, Delta, American and other airlines for their refusal to provide refunds.
“Why have none of these other airlines been fined?” Mc Gee asks. “And why does it take so long … why does it take (almost) three years to investigate this, especially since all the data is public?”
“Airlines that blatantly circumvent the rules deserve a fine, but this latest round of USDOT enforcement comes nearly three years late and leaves out the most egregious US offenders,” says McGee.
Airlines facing fines include a single US-based carrier, Frontier, which was forced to pay $ 222 million in rebates and a $ 2.2 million fine. But in a statement, Frontier says it will only pay $ 1 million out of its own pocket, after receiving a $ 1.2 million goodwill repayment credit.
The other airlines subject to enforcement on Monday are:
- Air India – $ 121.5 million in requested refunds paid and a $ 1.4 million fine
• TAP Air Portugal – $ 126.5 million in requested refunds paid and a $ 1.1 million fine
• Aeromexico – $ 13.6 million in required refunds paid and a $ 900,000 fine
• El Al – $ 61.9 million in required refunds paid and a $ 900,000 fine
• Avianca – $ 76.8 million in required refunds paid and a $ 750,000 fine
All consent orders are available at www.regulations.gov, docket number DOT-OST-2022-
The Department has also proposed stricter rules on airline customer refunds.
According to the DOT, consumers can file air travel consumer complaints online at http://airconsumer.dot.gov/escomplaint/ConsumerForm.cfm or via voice mail at (202) -366-2220.