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In the midst of the brutal Chicago cold in January and knowing that March brings its own kind of misery to the Midwest, Mary Fabianski plans to spend a week in early spring on the beaches of Florida with the family.
She booked a flight for Sarasota on United Airlines for a return trip of $ 488 on January 22, before the pandemic affected travel to the United States. But as it approached its travel date of March 29, Fabianski suspected that the trip could not happen. However, she did not cancel her plans right away.
United did it for her on March 26.
“I received an SMS alert on my phone at 1:23 p.m. in the afternoon, simply saying that they were sorry to let me know that my flight to Sarasota had been canceled due to unprecedented circumstances,” said said Fabianski.
When an airline cancels a flight and offers no other option to get to your destination within a reasonable time (which United defines as within six hours of your scheduled arrival time), it is legally bound to offer reimbursement. But it’s not because they have to make it easier for the airlines, as Fabianski discovered.
New research suggests that nearly 60 million Americans are losing money because they cannot get reimbursed for canceled flights and other travel plans.
Within hours of receiving the flight cancellation notice, Fabianski logged into the United website to explore his options.
“And it was confusing to say the least and I thought the only option I could do was cancel my trip,” which Fabianski said made no sense because the flight was already canceled. A refund was not part of the options presented by United.
So she called. At first, she was told that she couldn’t get a refund because she canceled her trip, even if United did.
Then she was told how to get back online and request a refund, which she did. A few days later, she said that she received an email “saying that my refund request was denied because my ticket was not refundable”.
United told her that she could get a voucher for future trips and that she would waive the change fee, which most airlines currently do.
But Fabianski said it was still not good, so she called several times, spending hours going back and forth with the airline.
The retired English teacher took meticulous notes on each conversation. She even mentioned US Department of Transportation regulations requiring airlines to even refund non-refundable airline tickets when canceling flights, for whatever reason.
Finally, Fabianski learned that she could get a refund, but not before next year, if she doesn’t use her travel voucher by then.
“I was so frustrated,” she says. “I feel they are sort of, what is the right word? Dishonest. “
Part of that is because taxpayers like her are now coming to the rescue of the airlines. United is receiving $ 5 billion in federal aid to help cover the wage bill for the next six months, and says it will likely ask for an additional $ 4.5 billion in government loans.
“I have no problem with that, but what is United doing to compensate me for my loss? Asks Fabianski.
“It drives me crazy because they ask the same thing as I do,” she adds. “It frostes my cake, it really does. “
A spokesperson for United Airlines said it appeared that Fabianski was right and that she has now received a refund for her canceled flight.
But it’s a very different story if you cancel your trip. The airline is therefore not required to offer a refund. Each airline’s policies differ, but they generally only offer credits or vouchers for future trips.
Most airlines now waive modification and cancellation fees, and some, including United, now allow you up to two years to use travel vouchers or credits.
If you still want a refund, having travel insurance may not help. Only the “cancel for any reason” insurance will reimburse you, and even then it may not cover the full amount and you can wait months for reimbursement.
Complaints about denied refunds filed with the United States Department of Transportation, state attorneys general, and consumer groups are skyrocketing, with some potential travelers suing airlines for refusing to reimburse.
“We have found that a lot of people have unfortunately lost money,” said Ted Rossman, an analyst at Bankrate.com, who just published a study on coronavirus reimbursements. “Only 30% of people who have experienced canceled trips or other events due to the coronavirus have recovered all of their money. “
That leaves 70% of consumers – 59 million – getting only partial refunds, credits or nothing at all for canceled flights, hotel stays, vacation rentals, concert tickets and more plans.
Rossman suggests waiting as long as possible before canceling to see if the airline cancels first. If there is a dispute, he says, take it with whom you bought, whether it be the airlines themselves or a third-party site like Expedia or Orbitz. Booking with a travel agent can help you because they can defend you and have experience in this area. Some consumers have resorted to challenging airline fees with their credit card companies, with mixed results.
The reason why airlines in particular are trying to persuade customers to take credit or vouchers instead of refunds is simple – they are running out of money, says DePaul University aviation expert Joe Schwieterman.
“They have to watch every last dollar,” says Schwieterman, noting that airlines lose millions of dollars every day. “They’re trying, you know, to just keep some semblance of a working system, so they’re reluctant to make it too easy for travelers to grab this refund.”
Schwieterman says giving customers a credit or travel voucher “keeps the money in their coffers, and if there is a time when airlines need cash and cash, it’s right now because that it’s a very scary situation. “
United, for example, announced on Monday that it lost $ 2.1 billion in the first quarter of this year (compared to $ 300 million in first quarter profits last year). The airline was losing $ 100 million a day in the last two weeks of March and plans to carry fewer passengers in May than it did one day last May.
The Airlines for America industry group says US airlines have parked more than 2,700 of their planes. This represents 44% of the country’s commercial air fleet. The group says the few planes that fly are almost empty, with an average of 10 passengers on domestic flights and 24 passengers on international flights.
But many people who have travel plans may be facing their own cash crunch right now, so paying for a trip they can’t make is essential for them.