Why is it so hard to get a flight refund?

As an air desk specialist at a major Canadian travel agency, Jennifer has left her work ‘incredibly exhausted’ for the past two months, and spent hours on behalf of her clients working through aviation policy. The rush of canceled flights, she told me, began in January when the first travel restrictions to China were issued. By March the pace of her day-to-day work had accelerated, and even with over a decade of industry experience under her belt, Jennifer found herself overwhelmed.

“In my work, I’m not dealing directly with clients, but with the agents who work with them,” said Jennifer, who asked for privacy reasons to keep her last name. “I work with the airlines to try to get our customers’ money back wherever we can, and even I am put on hold for over an hour.” Because Jennifer communicates directly with the airlines, she has access to what she describes as a ‘back door phone number’ to reach the airlines, but even that line was busier than usual.

In mid-March, the coronavirus pandemic caused a historic slowdown in aviation, leading to serious financial difficulties for the aviation sector. US airlines have reduced the number of available flight routes, and in many cases they had to cancel or cut back flights to accommodate changing schedules.

On April 3, the United States Department of Transportation issued a mandate that US airlines provide customers with refunds, not vouchers, for flights that were canceled by the airline or that experienced “significant flight delays or changes.” The department has not defined what a delay is, write on her website that a refund depends on factors such as the duration of the delay, flight and other ‘special circumstances’.

American Airlines offers refunds for flights that have been pushed back more than four hours or when a customer is rebooked from a non-stop trip to a connection trip. United requires a schedule change of at least six o’clockand Delta allows refunds for trips that are more than delayed 90 minutes.

Still, despite the US government’s notice – first in April and another in May – and with an emphasis on how consumers can expect “quick” refunds, many frustrated fliers say they have not received their money back for canceled trips. Under the Ministry of Transport enforcement rulesPassengers must receive a refund within seven working days if they paid by credit card and cash or check within 20 days. (The European Union also requires passenger refunds for canceled flights.)

Some say they got vouchers or flight credits instead; others say they have been promised any refunds that have not yet appeared. Dissatisfied customers have used Twitter to complain long waiting times for calls, glitchy airline websitesand more generally the bureaucratic barriers that prevent them from getting their money back.

The Ministry of Transport has one record number of complaints on refunds, and a handful of passengers filed for an application class action lawsuits against major U.S. airlines, including America, Delta and United, for not providing refunds. And despite the industry’s financial downturn, the American public appears to be very fond of it little sympathy for airlines, which received a $ 25 billion bailout from the federal government in April.

“In the end, people just want their money back,” said Jennifer. “But even as a travel professional doing this every day, some consumer policies are so unclear, and there was a point in March when things were so incredibly smooth that it changed every hour.” Successfully contacting an airline by phone or online can sometimes be ‘the luck of the draw,’ she added.

In an email to Vox, a United spokesperson said that since the start of the coronavirus crisis, the airline has introduced new policies to offer customers flexibility. “Eligible Travelers have received and will continue to receive refunds through United.com or our Contact Centers if their flights have been severely modified or the service has been suspended to their destination, either as a result of a government mandate or a reduction in the United regarding COVID-19, “Read the email. The spokesperson added that United has provided step-by-step instructions on its social media and website to help fliers with its online cancellation tools.

A US spokesperson told Vox that the company “works around the clock to take care of customers,” adding that the airline has a travel waiver program that allows pilots to change plans and offers refunds on flights operated by Americans to be canceled for any reason. Delta did not respond to a request for comment by email.

Some customers have reported being on hold with an airline for more than five hours, as many were unable to request a refund directly through the website. As a final attempt, a Los Angeles resident Mo tweeted at Delta after struggling to hold on to reach a service representative and managed to get a refund for a flight to Seattle that was delayed and diverted several times .

Mo was not so lucky with American, the courier for the return flight. “I submitted a refund request last month on their online portal and crickets,” Mo wrote on Twitter. “I submitted another last week, received a confirmation email with a promise of results within 7 days, but still nothing.”

Customers have experienced incredibly varied refund processes depending on the carriers, the destination and how their trips were booked – whether by credit card or airline points, through a travel agency or website, or directly from the respective airline.

“The most important thing I’ve learned from expert travelers is that it usually doesn’t pay to jump with a gun when canceled. You have to wait for the situation or policy to change in your favor,” Tracy E. Robey, freelance journalist and founder from the blog Fan-serviced, told me on Twitter. That was the case for a tour she booked to Seoul at the end of April with United points she had saved.

Because Korea was early on the United restitution list due to the coronavirus outbreak, Robey was eligible for a points refund in mid-March, but would have to pay approximately $ 125 to redeploy those points. However, United’s policy changed on March 30, eliminating the point redemption fee. “My points were credited back to my account within 24 hours,” said Robey. “I even received a full refund of taxes and fees within 36 hours. I was quite overwhelmed. ‘

Robey’s main advice for pilots is to be aware of specific aviation policies. In her case, she tried to ensure that her cancellation was documented: “I wanted a screenshot of exactly what I accepted when I clicked the cancel button. It is impossible to get such a paper trail when talking to someone on the phone. “

But some customers who have exhausted their options feel they have no choice but to jump on the phone. A Delta flyer has been posted on Twitter a screenshot of an error that popped up while searching for its canceled flight on the airline’s website, making it impossible to virtually request a refund.

Michael Bettendorf has been trying these last few weekends to get refunds on trips he booked for his daughter, a student who studied abroad in Spain. His experience with Expedia, he told me, was by far the most time consuming. He had booked a one-way flight from Spain to Los Angeles through Expedia and it was canceled by the airline Aer Lingus. But when he contacted the travel site and the airline, both initially denied responsibility for his refund.

“When I tried to get a refund through Expedia where the ticket was purchased, Expedia told me to go to the airline instead,” said Bettendorf. “They sent me a link to a webpage on the airline’s website. The page literally said that if you bought the ticket through a travel agency such as Expedia, the airline will not be able to process your refund. “

He eventually filed a complaint with the Department of Transportation after a month of communicating on Expedia through their live chat service. “Expedia never acknowledged whether or not they received that complaint,” he said, adding that the agency said the refund would take up to eight weeks. (Expedia did not respond to a request for comment by email.)

Given the wild goose hunt for these government-mandated refunds, travel experts think future fliers will hesitate to book through affiliate sites such as Expedia or directly with the airlines. Instead, they’re looking at agencies, their credit card companies, or other booking options that are more consumer-friendly, said Brian Kelly, founder of the travel site The Points Guy. However, it can be advantageous to book directly with a carrier; airlines are more willing to please customers than a travel professional and are sometimes willing to break the rules.

“As much as I like to say it, a consumer can call an airline and scream and complain, and sometimes that will get the job done,” Jennifer told me. “As a travel professional, I can’t do that. I hate advocating for that kind of behavior, but unfortunately if it’s a situation where you have to get your money back, it will sometimes work.”

Kelly has consistently booked travel through American Express Travel and recommends others consider booking with credit card companies that offer more consumer protection.

“In case an airline goes bankrupt and you get stranded, if you book with the correct credit card, they will likely intervene, pay for your hotel and come up with another flight,” Kelly told me. “With this crisis, we are likely to see more and more bankrupt airlines that have no obligations to their customers.” He encourages fliers to find out if their credit card has an internal travel agency such as American Express, or if they collaborate with external agencies, such as Chase does with Expedia. “The bottom line is that it’s much easier to go through a credit card company than an airline,” he concluded.

However, these measures come at a cost, ultimately benefiting the customers who have the financial resources to pay for it – be it a travel agent or a premium travel credit card to ensure greater travel protection. The aviation industry has always preferred the wealthy: the reward programs led by the airlines prefer their frequent flyers and first-class travelers. With customers looking for refunds, pilots who are experienced in navigating the airline system, an agent, or just have enough time are more likely to secure their refund.

For both rare and seasoned travelers, the pandemic has highlighted the intricacies of consumer policy and the agreements many customers don’t quite understand. Often these details can prevent people from getting their money back or being aware of the rights to which they are entitled. When a person buys an air ticket, they are asked to tick a box corresponding to what is called the carrier contract issued by the airline. In most cases, these agreements are “usually stacked against the customer,” Kelly added.

“The devil is really in the details,” he said. “If you book a flight today, even with the flexible change policy advocated by the airlines, you should be willing to give up your money.”

While industry executives have identified themselves emerging signs Due to the increased demand for travel, airlines are expected to see a slow financial recovery and are therefore likely to hesitate to issue refunds quickly. Most states have taken steps to reopen, meaning more people are likely to engage in all kinds of social activities, including travel, it is believed.

United is expected to add more flights as early as July, and Southwest said its flights were 25 to 30 percent full, compared to the initial 10 percent estimate, the Wall Street Journal reported. But as long as airlines continue to adjust their schedules, causing delays and cancellations, the pressure is on customers – whose taxpayers have funded the airline’s financing package – to get their money back.

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