Travel | August 13, 2020 1:23 pm

Airlines Still Owe American Travelers Billions of Dollars in Refunds

What use is a flight voucher in a year without travel?

Airlines Still Owe American Travelers Billions of Dollars in Refunds
(Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

Despite a $50 billion bailout to help the industry survive the summer and periodic threats from the U.S. Department of Transportation, both domestic and international airlines that operate in America are still finding creative ways to withhold refunds from would-be passengers.

According to a recent report from The Wall Street Journal, carriers still owe customers billions of dollars, and have gone out of their way to make recovering that money extremely difficult. As early as April 3 — when TSA checkpoint numbers cratered to just 100,000 (on the same day in 2019, that figure stood at 2.4 million) — the US DOT reminded airlines that by law, refund options are required during a crisis.

But many airlines didn’t listen, instead choosing to prominently publicize their voucher programs, which can offer incentives (value bonuses of 10-20%) to forgoing a refund, along with flexibility, like the chance to transfer it to a family member. Some airlines have even chosen to put deadlines on when exactly a customer can qualify for a voucher, fabricating a clock threat menace, in the hope that a traveler will give up on figuring out the details of a cancelled flight and just take what he or she can get. Others have stipulated that vouchers can only be substituted for refunds after the voucher has expired; no matter that that can take up to a year, and the airline could theoretically fold within that time, sending both your voucher and your money into the ether.

These bad faith practices are catching up to carriers. While the industry has undoubtedly suffered from the global travel pause — to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars — this is an opportunity to foster trust and cater to the purchasing power of those willing to fly in a post-pandemic world. Squandering it by holding ransom a few hundred or thousand dollars from Americans who need it badly right now will probably not be forgotten. That said: American-based airlines, surprisingly, have been more generous with refunds so far, but that may be because foreign carriers think themselves immune to the watchful eye of the US DOT.

If you’re in the blender right now, trying to get your money back, and stuck with a flight voucher (seriously — in some cases, a parent who paid for an entire trip can’t redeem the value of a voucher sent to his eight-year-old) don’t give up. Airlines are slowly issuing refunds as the industry breathes back to life, even if it’s for the wrong reasons, and you’ll get your money back this fall.

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