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As Airlines Canceled Flights this Spring, Refund Complaints Skyrocketed

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In April of 2019, consumers seeking refunds for canceled flights filed 85 complaints with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

As coronavirus wreaked havoc on travel and lives worldwide, that jumped to more than 15,200 in April 2020.

That massive increase (of more than 17,800%) underscores the growing awareness that both domestic and foreign airlines owe passengers a refund when the airline itself cancels or significantly changes a flight touching U.S. soil. And airlines canceled flights in huge numbers as air travel dropped to record lows in April.

But it also highlights the undeniable fact that many airlines have tried to break the law, holding onto as much of passengers' money to survive a cash crunch.

Read more: Airlines Aren't Telling Travelers When They're Eligible for Refunds


Breaking Down the Refund Complaints

These numbers come from the Air Travel Consumer Report, with new data from April released Friday. It's worth noting that this doesn't mean 15,200-plus passengers were wrongly denied refunds – just that more than 15,000 filed a complaint with the DOT trying to get their money back.

Yet the massive rise in those complaints shows how large of a sticking point refunds have become between airlines and the traveling public. And the numbers clearly show some offenders are worse than others – especially in the U.S.


Surprise, surprise: United leads the pack with a whopping 2,727 complaints seeking refunds in just a month. That's more than double any other major airline. In March, United racked up more refund complaints than almost every other major U.S. airline combined.

United has gone to greater lengths than any carrier to hang on to customers' money. It gained a reputation for illegally denying refund requests when canceling flights, leading the Department of Transportation to warn airlines to start following the law – not just once, but twice.

Curious if you're eligible for a refund? Use our flowchart or watch our walkthrough on getting refunds



United also enacted an appalling policy change to limit how many refunds it would have to give out when changing flight schedules: Only schedule changes of 25 hours or more would qualify for a refund. After consumer blowback, the airline eventually settled on a (still quite bad) six-hour threshold before bringing that back down to a 2-hour change this month.

Among international airlines, few have been more egregious than Air Canada. Canada's biggest airline has said it will refuse to issue refunds, period, openly flouting U.S. law.

Air Canada was the subject of nearly 1,000 complaints in April 2020, the most by far among any international carrier.


Bottom Line

We've said it before and we'll say it again: This crisis has revealed many airlines' true colors. The numbers clearly show more travelers than ever know their rights, and that's a good thing.

But they also paint a telling picture about which airlines are doing right by consumers, and which are not.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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