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Handling Coronavirus Flight Cancellations
Coronavirus / Covid-19

Handling Coronavirus Flight Cancellations

Last updated: April 08,2021
Originally Published: June 08,2020
by Jameson Lamie

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Time is money, so perhaps accepting the voucher or travel credit could be a good option after all

The ongoing pandemic has brought travel to a screeching halt. That means many people are scrambling with how to handle coronavirus flight cancellations. Each airline is handling the situation differently. However, there are a few strategies to make sure that you are getting the most you possibly can.

The biggest point of emphasis: if the airline cancels your flight, you are entitled to a full refund for the airfare. You DO NOT need to take travel credit for a future flight.

Yes, many airlines will offer travel credit instead of a refund. But as soon as you accept the flight credit or voucher, you waive your right to a full refund. So be VERY careful when responding to the airline when they notify you of any flight cancellations.

1. Call the Airline

This is the most obvious and straightforward option when dealing with coronavirus flight cancellations. The first step is to call the airline and request for a refund if your flight is canceled due to the pandemic (or any other reason, really).

Waiting on call with credit card
Flight cancelled? The first and most obvious option is to call the airline directly.

More than likely, the airline will not want to give you a refund. The airlines are in financial pinch and don’t want to let go of any more liquid cash than they absolutely have it.

What does that mean? The airlines will likely offer you a refund in credit good for future travel rather than a full refund in cash. Sometimes, perhaps travel credit makes sense. But since there’s so much uncertainty with when travel will pick up again and what it will look like, it’s often much better to receive a full cash refund instead.

Let me emphasis this point again. If the airline cancels the flight, you are ENTITLED to a cash refund. But if you accept any alternative forms of compensation (like travel credit, frequent flyer miles, etc.), you are no longer entitled to the cash refund. So no matter what the customer service representative says, don’t feel compelled to agree to any inferior compensation. You are completely entitled to a full cash refund!

…Even though it may be difficult

The problem with calling the airlines right now is that they are being bombarded with angry customers with coronavirus flight cancellations. You might wait on the phone only to be offered a measly travel credit rather than a refund. Your best bet might be to call as soon as the airline’s customer service hours open. Or perhaps even calling one of the airline’s international call centers (United Kingdom, Australia, Europe, etc.).

With airline call centers jammed, you could also reach out via social media. Some airlines are very responsive to tweets, which might help save yourself hours waiting on hold.

If you can get through to the airline… fantastic. But contacting the airline isn’t your only option.

2. File a DOT Complaint

Let’s say you call/email/tweet the airline about a coronavirus flight cancellation, and they refuse to give you cash refund. Rather than dealing with the airline, you could file a formal complaint with the Department of Transportation.

Yes… this seems like overkill. But in reality, it’s kind of like asking to speak with the manager at a restaurant. You need someone with more authority to help play referee and correct the airline’s error. And since airlines are experiencing high call volumes, it can be exceedingly difficult to get in touch with someone. Of all times, this is when to call in the “big guns.” The squeaky wheel gets the grease, right?

Only A Five-Minute Form

Many people are intimidated when dealing with the federal government. Luckily, the Department of Transportation has made it very easy to make a complaint on their website. In fact, the process will only take about five minutes.

First, you have to go to the DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection website.

Screenshot of DOT website
Submitted a DOT complaint for a coronavirus flight cancellation only takes five minutes

From there, you go to the bottom of the page and click the “File a Consumer Complaint” button.

DOT Aviation Consumer Protection Website
Click the “File a Consumer Complaint” button at the bottom of the page.

You’ll then be taken to the page where you submit the information for your individual complaint. You might expect a long, drawn out complaint form. But the DOT makes it very quick and simple. Below is all of the information you would need to provide.

DOT Complain page
Filing a DOT complaint when an airline refuses to give a cash refund is as simple as this form

Not so bad, right? While the process is surprisingly easy, the hard part is the wait. The airlines have 60 days to provide a response to the DOT regarding each complaint. Not ideal, but par for the course when dealing with government bureaucracy.

3. Look Up Country-Specific Policies for Coronavirus Flight Cancellations

You might be thinking that you are entitled to a complete refund only if your cancelled flight was for a domestic itinerary within the United States. But actually, the U.S government obligates ALL airlines offer full refunds for any travel to, within, or from the United States. So yes, this also applies to foreign airlines operating flights to/from the U.S. And this isn’t even specific to coronavirus flight cancelations – this is a standing government policy.

One point of clarification: this obligation only kicks in when an airline cancels or “significantly delays” your scheduled flight. So 1) it’s not an option if you simply don’t want to fly because of the pandemic; and 2) the Department of Transportation doesn’t define what exactly is a “significant delay.” Your itinerary shifted by 10 minutes? I highly doubt the airline or government would consider this “significant.” But your flight is moved to a Tuesday instead of a Monday? Yes, that would definitely qualify.

The DOT's definition of "significantly delayed"
The Department of Transportation’s loose definition of “significantly delayed.”

It isn’t just the U.S. government that has this kind of consumer protection for coronavirus flight cancellations, either. Other countries also require airlines to provide the option for a full refund in the event of flight cancellations. This includes both the European Union and Australia, and these policies don’t only apply to EU or Australian nationals. So even if your scheduled flight was supposed to fly through any of the European Union countries or Australia, you would still be eligible for a refund.

The United States, the European Union, and Australia – this is by no means an exhaustive list of countries requiring refunds. If your scheduled itinerary flies through other countries, be sure to check what their specific policy could be.

4. Dispute the Airfare Charge on Your Credit Card

This is yet another reason why you should put all of your transactions on credit cards. If you ever fail to receive an item or service that you paid for with a credit card, simply dispute the charge with your credit card company. The credit card company will often refund you the money (called a “chargeback”) and look into the issue with the merchant. So if you’re double-charged at a store and the merchant will fix it, call the credit card company instead.

This can also applies to coronavirus flight cancellations. If you paid for a flight and the airline cancelled it, you are entitled to a refund. If the airline is unresponsive or refused to grant a refund, you can dispute the original airfare charge with your credit card company.

A screenshot of the Chase dispute charge screen
An example of Chase’s process for disputing a transaction, including airfare.

Obviously, this shouldn’t be your first option. You should at least attempt to resolve the problem on your own. But if the customer service rep refuses to grant you a refund, it is your right to dispute the charge altogether.

But here’s a quick word of caution. Most credit card companies only allow up to 120 days to dispute a transaction. So if you bought the airfare five months ago, this course of action probably won’t be an option. Each credit card company is different, so it is best to look into what could apply in your individual situation.

5. Throw in the Towel – Just Take the Voucher/Travel Credit

We’ve been going through all of the different options to avoid taking a flight voucher for your coronavirus flight cancellation. But you know what? If you’re going to travel again, it might be worth it just to take the voucher or travel credit.

Airlines are becoming desperate for cash, and many have extended their travel voucher expiration dates for up to two years. Do you think you’ll be traveling in the next years? If so… why go through the hassle of filing a complaint with the Department of Transportation or dispute a credit card charge? You’ll likely be giving the airlines more money in the near future, so why waste your time?

Of course, this won’t apply in certain cases. Perhaps you purchased airfare with a small, obscure airline that you’ll never fly with in the future. Or maybe the original trip was to visit a certain destination, and that will no longer be an option. In these type of cases, you’re definitely better fighting for a refund. But if you live in Houston and United Airlines is offering your credit for future travel? I think it’s sure bet you’ll be flying with United within the next two years.

Time is money, so perhaps accepting the voucher or travel credit could be the best option after all.

6. Hire Points Panda Concierge to Handle it for You

As much as we can simplify the options, it’s impossible to address everyone’s travel concerns. Each airline is different, each country is different, and each airline credit card (or credit cards in general) is different. If you’d rather not mess with any of this, Points Panda offers a concierge service to take care of your travel needs for you. From coronavirus flight cancellations to credit card suggestions to award flights, the Points Panda experts can focus on travel so you can focus on everything else.

If you’re interested in a free consolation, check us out here. We’d love to hear from you!

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