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Why is it so hard to get a flight refund?

Some customers have spent hours on hold with airlines, filed multiple complaints, and even filed class action lawsuits.

A nearly deserted airline counter at Los Angeles International Airport in April.
David McNew/Getty Images

As an air desk specialist at a major Canadian travel agency, Jennifer has finished work for the past two months feeling “incredibly exhausted,” having spent hours navigating through airline policies on behalf of her clients. The rush of flight cancellations, she told me, began in January as the first travel restrictions to China were issued. By March, the pace of her daily work had ramped up, and even with more than a decade of industry experience under her belt, Jennifer found herself overwhelmed.

“In my work, I don’t deal directly with clients, but the agents who are working with them,” said Jennifer, who asked to withhold her last name for privacy reasons. “I’m working with the airlines to try and get our clients’ money back wherever we can, and even I’m being put on hold for over an hour.” Since Jennifer directly communicates with the airlines, she has access to what she describes as a “back door phone number” to reach the carriers, but even that line has been busier than usual.

The coronavirus pandemic precipitated a historic slowdown in air travel by mid-March, placing the airline industry in severe financial distress. US carriers have cut back on the number of available flight routes, and in many instances have had to cancel or push back flights to fit the changing schedules.

On April 3, the US Department of Transportation issued a mandate declaring that US carriers must give customers refunds, not vouchers, for flights that were canceled by the airline or faced “significant delays or schedule changes.” The department didn’t define what constitutes a delay, writing on its website that a refund depends on factors including length of the delay, flight, and other “particular circumstances.”

American Airlines will provide refunds for flights that have been pushed back by more than four hours or when a customer gets rebooked from a nonstop trip to one with a connection. United requires a schedule change of at least six hours, and Delta allows refunds for trips that have been delayed by over 90 minutes.

Still, despite the US government’s enforcement notice — first in April and another in May — and emphasis on how consumers should expect “prompt” refunds, many frustrated fliers say they haven’t been given their money back for canceled trips. Under the Department of Transportation’s enforcement rules, passengers should receive a refund within seven business days if they paid via credit card, and within 20 days by cash or check. (The European Union has also required passenger refunds for canceled flights.)

Some say they’ve been offered vouchers or flight credits instead; others say they were promised eventual refunds that haven’t yet appeared. Disgruntled clients have used Twitter to complain about long call wait times, glitchy airline websites, and, more generally, the bureaucratic obstacles that prevent them from getting their money back.

The Department of Transportation has received a record number of complaints regarding refunds, and a handful of passengers have filed class action lawsuits against major US airlines, including America, Delta, and United, for their failure to issue refunds. And despite the industry’s financial decline, the American public seems to have very little sympathy for airlines, which received a $25 billion bailout from the federal government in April.

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

In an emailed response to Vox, a United spokesperson said the airline has implemented new policies to give customers flexibility since the start of the coronavirus crisis. “Eligible travelers have received, and continue to receive, refunds either through or our contact centers if their flights have been severely adjusted or service to their destination suspended either due to government mandates or United schedule reductions related to COVID-19,” read the email. The spokesperson added that United has provided step-by-step instructions on its social media and website to assist fliers with its online cancellation tools.

An American spokesperson told Vox that the company is working “around the clock to take care of customers,” adding that the airline has a travel waiver program that allows fliers to change plans and that refunds are offered for flights American cancels for any reason. A Delta spokesperson said in an email that since the beginning of March, the airline has processed more than 2.5 million refunds, totaling $1.2 billion. “We continue to take steps to improve our refund policies and speed up our refund-issuance procedures,” read the email.

Some customers have reported spending upward of five hours on hold with an airline, since many weren’t able to request a refund through the website directly. As a last-ditch effort, Mo, a Los Angeles resident, tweeted at Delta after struggling to stay on hold to reach a service representative and managed to secure a refund for a Seattle-bound flight that was delayed and rerouted several times.

Mo didn’t have as much luck with American, the carrier for the returning flight. “I submitted a refund request on their online portal last month and crickets,” Mo wrote to me on Twitter. “I submitted another early last week, got 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 airline in question.

“The most important thing I learned from expert travelers is that it usually doesn’t pay off to jump the gun on canceling. You should wait until the situation or policy changes to your advantage,” Tracy E. Robey, a freelance journalist and founder of the blog Fanserviced, told me via Twitter. That was the case for a round trip she booked to Seoul for late April with United points she had accumulated.

Since Korea was on United’s refund list early on for its coronavirus outbreak, Robey qualified for a points refund in mid-March, but she would have to pay a roughly $125 fee to redeposit those points. United’s policy, however, changed on March 30, which eliminated the fee for point redeposits. “My points were returned to my account within 24 hours,” Robey said. “I even received a full refund of the taxes and fees within 36 hours. I was kind of blown away.”

Robey’s primary advice for fliers is to be aware of specific airline policies. For her case, she tried to make sure her cancellation was documented: “I wanted a screenshot of exactly what I was accepting when I clicked the cancel button. It’s impossible to get that kind of paper trail when talking to someone on the phone.”

Yet some customers who’ve exhausted their options feel like they have no choice but to hop on the phone. On Twitter, one Delta flier posted a screenshot of an error message that popped up as he searched for his canceled flight on the airline’s website, making it impossible to request the refund virtually.

Michael Bettendorf has spent the last few weekends trying to get refunds for trips he has booked for his daughter, a college student who was studying 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. Yet when he contacted the travel website 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 that I had to go to the airline instead,” Bettendorf told me. “They sent me a link to a webpage at the airline website. The page literally said that if you bought the ticket through a travel agent such as Expedia, then the airline cannot deal with your refund.”

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

Given the wild goose chase for these government-mandated refunds, travel experts think future fliers will hesitate booking through affiliate sites like Expedia or with the airlines directly. Instead, they’ll look to agencies, their credit card companies, or other reservation options that are more consumer-friendly, according to Brian Kelly, founder of the travel website The Points Guy. Still, there might be benefits to directly booking with a carrier; airlines are more willing to please customers than a travel professional, and are sometimes willing to bend the rules.

“As much as I hate 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 to advocate for that type of behavior, but if it’s a situation where you should get your money back, that unfortunately will sometimes work.”

Kelly has consistently booked trips through American Express Travel and advises others to consider reserving with credit card companies that offer more consumer protections.

“In the case of an airline going bankrupt and stranding you, if you book with the right credit card, they’ll likely step in, pay for your hotel, and figure out another flight,” Kelly told me. “With this crisis, it’s likely we’re going to see more and more bankrupt airlines, which don’t have obligations to their customers.” He encourages fliers to figure out whether their credit card has an internal travel agency like American Express, or whether they partner with external agencies, like how Chase does with Expedia. “The bottom line is, it’s much easier to get through to a credit card company than an airline right now,” he concluded.

These measures, however, come at a cost, which ultimately benefits the customers who have the financial means to pay for them — whether that be a travel agent or a premium travel credit card to guarantee more trip protections. The air travel industry has always favored the wealthy: The rewards programs spearheaded by the carriers favor their frequent fliers and first-class travelers. Now, as customers scramble for refunds, fliers who have experience navigating the airline system, an agent, or simply have ample time on their hands are more likely to secure their refunds.

For both infrequent and seasoned travelers, the pandemic has highlighted the intricacies of consumer policies and agreements that many customers don’t entirely understand. Oftentimes, these details can hinder people from getting their money back or being aware of the rights they’re entitled to. When a person purchases a flight ticket, they’re asked to check a box agreeing to what is called the contract of carriage 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’re booking a flight today, even with the flexible change policies advocated by the airlines, be prepared to part with your cash.”

While industry executives have identified emerging signs of increased travel demand, airlines are expected to see a slow financial recovery and will likely therefore be hesitant to quickly dish out refunds. Most states have taken steps toward reopening, which means more people will likely start doing all sorts of social activities, including, one can assume, travel.

Already, United is expected to add more flights in July and Southwest said its flights have been 25 to 30 percent full, compared to its initial 10 percent estimate, the Wall Street Journal reported. But so long as airlines keep altering their schedules, causing delays and cancellations, the burden so far has been on customers — whose taxpayer dollars funded the airline bailout package — to ensure they get their money back.