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The Department of Transportation sent a clear message to airlines serving the United States on Friday, reminding carriers to reimburse travelers whose flights are canceled by the airline.
Even the title of the missive was heavy. In its “enforcement notice”, DOT stated that “carriers have a long-standing obligation to provide prompt reimbursement to a passenger with a ticket when the carrier cancels the passenger’s flight or makes a significant change in the schedule and that the passenger chooses not to accept the alternative offered by the carrier. “
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Demand for air travel has plummeted following the coronavirus pandemic, and airlines around the world are running out of cash as they try to maintain their payroll and meet other travel expenses. exploitation even as revenues dry up. As a result, many carriers have attempted to save their money by issuing vouchers for future trips – instead of refunds – when they canceled flights.
Related: Airline coronavirus waivers.
This change has attracted an increasing number of consumer complaints. Underlining the growing attention to the issue, a group of US senators weighed in on the subject this week in open letters to airline executives who implored them to change these policies.
Now the DOT is making it clear that even the extraordinary circumstances created by the COIVD-19 pandemic are no excuse for airlines to flout the law and that this has not gone unnoticed.
Related: 5 things to know about the $ 50 billion coronavirus assistance program for airlines.
“The obligation of the airlines to provide refunds, including the price of the ticket and the optional fees charged for the services which a passenger is unable to use, does not cease when the disruptions to the flight escape the carrier control (for example, due to government restrictions), ”said the ministry in a statement. “The Aviation Enforcement Office will monitor airline reimbursement policies and practices and take the necessary enforcement action. “
The reimbursement rules apply even when only one segment of a route is canceled, provided that each stage is on the same ticket.
“The obligation to reimburse passengers includes the reimbursement of all unused segments of a single ticket when a carrier cancels or significantly modifies one or more segments of the passenger’s itinerary, and the passenger chooses not to travel, “said a DOT spokesperson in an email. .
The ministry has recognized, however, that in these unusual times, airlines may find it difficult to comply immediately. In its memo, the agency suggested there would be some leeway to give carriers time to go online, but it didn’t specify exactly how much loose airlines could get.
With the warning issued on Friday, a number of airlines may want to reconsider their existing policies.
Among them, JetBlue. He recently announced a “temporary” policy that would prohibit passengers from being reimbursed even if their flight is canceled, as long as the carrier can accommodate them within 24 hours of their originally scheduled itinerary. “
This policy is only in effect until April 15, but it is unclear whether DOT would even tolerate a temporary decision not to follow its reimbursement rules.
United also criticized the fact that it is more difficult to obtain reimbursements for a coronavirus. More recently, the airline has stated that it will only issue travel credits for routes that would generally qualify for refunds, and these credits would become refundable if they were not used after one year.
And, internationally, Air France and KLM, citing “the high degree of uncertainty surrounding air travel and the large number of claims for reimbursement,” said they would not issue refunds for flights canceled during of a coronavirus. These carriers will likely now need to adjust this policy, at least on their services to and from the United States, in accordance with the new DOT guidelines.
Read more: TSA projections reflect the slowdown in travel.
Photo presented by Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images.
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WATCH: How to get a refund on your plane ticket (provided by Buzz60)