DOT Moves to Strengthen Rules on Refunds for Flight Changes, Cancellations

The Department of Transportation is proposing a set of rules that would give travelers additional protection if airline schedule changes upend their travel–or if a future pandemic upends the airline industry. 

The proposed rules announced Wednesday(Opens in a new window) and described in detail in a 116-page Notice of Proposed Rulemaking(Opens in a new window) (PDF) would clarify what counts as a significant change to an itinerary after which an airline would have to offer a refund:

  • The schedule shifts enough to move the departure or arrival time three or more hours on a domestic flight, or six or more hours on an international flight;

  • The flight would depart from or arrive at a different airport than originally scheduled;

  • The schedule change would add a connection to the original itinerary;

  • The change would leave the customer with a lower class of service, like from premium economy to economy;

  • The new flight would involve a different aircraft type with significantly worse seating or amenities.

The rule would also define “cancellation” as a particular flight vanishing from the schedule. As View From the Wing blogger Gary Leff notes(Opens in a new window), during the early days of the pandemic, United Airlines told some customers that a flight cancellation wouldn’t be eligible for a refund(Opens in a new window) if the airline could still get them to their destination within six hours of the original schedule.

“When Americans buy an airline ticket, they should get to their destination safely, reliably, and affordably,” the DOT announcement quotes Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “This new proposed rule would protect the rights of travelers and help ensure they get the timely refunds they deserve from the airlines.”

Other parts of the proposal would go into effect in a future pandemic. Airlines would have to provide non-expiring travel credits or vouchers if government restrictions related to “a serious communicable disease” made travel impossible, if a possible infection with that serious communicable disease would threaten the health of other passengers, or if a medical professional’s advice or public-health guidance advised against travel during a declared public health emergency.

Further, airlines that took “significant governmental financial assistance” during a future pandemic would have to offer full refunds instead of flight credits. The notice, however, does not define “significant.” 

During the coronavirus pandemic, especially in its early days, airlines were not all on board in refunding passengers when they could not travel. Last November, the DOT fined Air Canada $2 million(Opens in a new window) after that carrier provided only vouchers instead of refunds.

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“Approximately 20% of the refund complaints that the Department received from January 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021, involved instances in which passengers with non-refundable tickets chose to not travel because of considerations related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the notice comments.

The DOT proposal does not, however, cover day-of-travel delays due to factors like maintenance or crew unavailability. So if you were hoping for a US answer to the European Union’s “EC 261” rule(Opens in a new window) requiring airlines to pay passengers for long delays under their control(Opens in a new window), you’ll have to keep waiting for that kind of regulation to land. 

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