Airports across the country have been eerily empty during the coronavirus pandemic, as millions of Americans chose to stay home instead of traveling to areas where there is little to do with safer at home orders in place. If your flight is canceled or changed, it can be notoriously difficult to do anything about that, especially if you are hoping for a full refund. However, the U.S. Department of Transportation has warned airlines that they owe customers a refund if the flight is canceled or significantly changed during the pandemic.
The Department of Transportation issued the reminder on April 3, after receiving a growing number of complaints about airlines not giving refunds. "In many of these cases, the passengers stated that the carrier informed them that they would receive vouchers or credits for future travel," the notice read. "But many airlines are dramatically reducing their travel schedules in the wake of the COVID-19 public health emergency. As a result, passengers are left with cancelled or significantly delayed flights and vouchers and credits for future travel that are not readily usable."
The DOT added that the airline industry offered refunds after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and other presidentially declared natural disasters. The airlines should continue following the policy during the COVID-19 health crisis, the department said. "The focus is not on whether the flight disruptions are within or outside the carrier's control, but rather on the fact that the cancellation is through no fault of the passenger," the notice read.
If you have booked a flight and think it is in danger of being canceled or changed due to the pandemic, USA Today suggests not voluntarily canceling the flight before any changes are made. Instead, you should keep an eye on emails with changes or cancellations as you get closer to the date of the flight. Airlines also have different definitions for a "significant schedule change," so you should contact customer service. If the flight change is not considered "significant," you might not be eligible for a refund.
You might not get an email on a change, so check the airline website for flight statuses. When contacting the airline, you should be persistent and specifically mention the DOT's refund guidelines. If you are told the rules do not apply, mention the DOT April 3 notice. It is also a good idea to be firm, but not rude, when talking with an airline reservation agent.