Minami Tamaki LLP is investigating claims that U.S. and foreign airlines have refused to provide required refunds after canceling or significantly delaying flights because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) public health emergency.
On April 3, 2020, the U.S. Department of Transportation (“DOT”) issued an Enforcement Notice stating that airlines remain obligated to provide prompt refunds to passengers for flights to, within, or from the United States when the carrier cancels a flight or makes a “significant schedule change” and the passenger chooses not to accept the alternative offered by the airline.
The Enforcement Notice noted that the DOT is receiving an increasing number of complaints from consumers alleging that airlines cancelled or significantly delayed flights and then failed to provide refunds. Consumers have reported that airlines have instead offered travel vouchers or credits for future travel. However, as the DOT noted, vouchers and credits may not be readily usable given the dramatic reduction in travel schedules due to COVID-19.
Airlines have a longstanding obligation to provide refunds to ticketed passengers upon canceling a flight or making significant changes to a flight schedule when a passenger declines alternatives such as a voucher. See Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections, 76 Fed. Reg. 23110-01 at 23129.
An airline’s obligation to provide a refund arises when the cancellation is through no fault of the passenger, and does not cease because a flight disruption is outside of the carrier’s control. See U.S. Dept. of Transportation, Aviation Consumer Protection, Refunds.
The Enforcement Notice states that it continues to view any policy or contract of carriage provision that purports to deny refunds to passengers as a violation that could subject an airline to an enforcement action.
The DOT stated that, in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, its Aviation Enforcement Office will provide airlines an opportunity to become compliant before pursuing an enforcement action provided that the airlines 1) contact passengers provided credit or vouchers to notify them that they have the option of a refund; 2) update their refund policies and contract of carriage provisions to make clear that they provide refunds; and 3) review with their personnel the circumstances under which refunds should be made.
If you were denied a refund after cancellation or a significant schedule change of air travel due to COVID-19 and would like more information, you may contact us online or call us at 415-788-9000.