The U.S. Department of Transportation has had to send clarifying “Enforcement Notices" to prompt airlines to do the right thing in the context of the current public health emergency. The notice states that U.S. and foreign airlines remain obligated to provide a speedy refund to passengers for flights to, within, or from the United States when the carrier cancels the passenger’s scheduled flight or makes a significant schedule change and the passenger chooses not to accept an alternative offered by the carrier.  

The obligation of airlines to provide refunds, including the ticket price and any optional fee charged for services a passenger is unable to use, does not cease when the flight disruptions are outside of the carrier’s control (e.g., a result of government restrictions).

The Department is receiving an increasing number of complaints and inquiries from ticketed passengers, including many with non-refundable tickets, who describe having been denied refunds for flights that were canceled or significantly delayed.  In many of these cases, the passengers stated that the carrier informed them that they would receive vouchers or credits for future travel. However, many passengers are complaining that, due to uncertainty and schedule cuts, they may not be able to use their vouchers within the allotted time – usually a year. Delta Air Lines announced, however, that it would work with coronavirus-related flight credits through until the end of May 2022.

Technically, customers may receive a refund when an airline cancels (or significantly delays) flights. That includes times that government restrictions prohibit flying. However, those rules do not apply when customers cancel on their own volition, even if they have reasonable concerns about flying – as in concern over the coronavirus.

Because the COVID-19 public health emergency has had an unprecedented impact on air travel, DOT’s Aviation Enforcement Office will exercise its enforcement discretion and provide carriers with an opportunity to become compliant before taking further action.  

However, the Aviation Enforcement Office will monitor airlines’ refund policies and practices and take enforcement action as necessary.