Is It Time to Lighten Up on Airlines Over Refund Policies?

In 2020, 102,550 consumers lodged complaints towards the Department of Transportation, with the majority taking aim at airlines

United received the most complaints of all U.S. carriers
United received the most complaints of all U.S. carriers
Scott Olson/Getty

According to the latest Air Travel Consumer Report released by the U.S. Department of Transportation, 2020 was a banner year for consumer complaints, many of which were derived from unhappy travelers in pursuit of refunds.

In total, a whopping 102,550 complaints were lodged against airlines (both U.S. and foreign), travel agents and tour operators — up more than 500% from 2019’s 15,342. Of those, according to the DOT, more than 90% were in regards to refunds. Unsurprisingly, most of the discontented took aim at airlines, and even more specifically, at United (who updated their policies in this past June in an effort to be more accommodating, just not in time to stop the bleeding). 

And I get it. Three weeks into quarantine last year, I was forced to postpone indefinitely a fully planned and paid for trip to Cartagena. I wound up with credit in my JetBlue travel bank and no idea as to when I’d be able to use it. It felt bad, and it’s no surprise that the number of incoming complaints spiked during that time.

It’s also no secret that the airline industry in particular is infamous for its lackluster customer service and support, and if airlines aren’t adhering to certain guidelines, there should be repercussions.

But it’s now been almost a year to the day that the U.S. began locking down and restricting travel and, in hindsight, it may be time to lighten up on travel companies — at least in some regards. We obviously had no way of knowing this time last year that we would still be dealing with COVID in the capacity we are today. When we first went into lockdown, I definitely had no intentions of canceling my trip to Colombia — I had the utmost confidence that restrictions would lift in a matter of weeks and I would be on my way. But we eventually crossed a line, at which point we — as travelers — needed to start assuming some of the risk. If you booked a flight well after coronavirus began and subsequently had to cancel or postpone it, do you really have license to complain?

The fact is that the customer-first mentality sometimes comes at a cost. At the close of 2020, U.S. airline losses were estimated to reach a cool $35 billion for the year. It was also approximated that nearly 174 million travel and tourism jobs would be lost globally by the start of 2021. Many companies were barely treading water up until recently, when news of the vaccine catalyzed a resurgence of travel bookings. Those figures make their failure to take swift action in providing everyone on Earth with full refunds to their original form of payment slightly more comprehensible, if not always commendable.

It’s also true that current policies are about as lax as they’ve ever been and, according to experts, many of them are poised to outlive the coronavirus. Almost all airlines have changed their ticket change and cancellation policies to favor the customer (even if only ever so slightly), and it’s a definitive step in the right direction.

So, again, maybe it’s time we all just … give it a rest. Read the fine print and start taking some responsibility. After all, when this is all said and done, I think we can agree that we’d like a travel industry to return to. And for what it’s worth, the DOT has responded to every one of those complaints.

“Many passengers who had initially been denied refunds have received the required refunds,” the agency said in a statement. “The Department will take enforcement action against noncompliant airlines and ticket agents as necessary.”

“The administration should strengthen and expand existing DOT rules on passenger flight refunds, particularly during ‘force majeure’ situations such as a global pandemic,” the statement continued. “In addition, the DOT must vigorously enforce these refund regulations with US airlines, foreign airlines, and other ticket sellers, including resolving outstanding claims that have not been settled, in some cases since March 2020.”

In the future, though, consider taking your frustrations to Twitter as opposed to, say, a government agency. You’ll probably have better luck soliciting a quick response or, at the very least, the attention of someone who shares your frustrations.


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