An increase in passenger complaints have led the US Department of Transportation to remind airlines that even amid the coronavirus downturn they must abide by government air ticket refund regulations.

Those policies require airlines to provide passengers with refunds if the airline cancels a flight or makes “a significant schedule change”, and if passengers decline alternative compensation.

“The department is receiving an increasing number of complaints and inquiries from ticketed passengers, including many with non-refundable tickets, who describe having been denied refunds for flights that were cancelled or significantly delayed,” says a 3 April DOT enforcement notice. “In many of these cases, the passengers stated that the carrier informed them that they would receive vouchers or credits for future travel.”

Cancelled flights

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Neither the DOT nor airline trade group Airlines for America has said if the airline industry requested relief from the US government’s refund requirements, which took effect in 2011 as part of passenger protection rules.

But on 31 March, global airline trade group IATA said airlines worldwide face the prospect of refunding a combined $35 billion due to “cancellations resulting from government-imposed travel restrictions” associated with the coronavirus pandemic.

“We welcome the actions of those regulators who have relaxed rules so as to permit airlines to issue travel vouchers in lieu of refunds for unused tickets, and we urge others to do the same,” IATA added on 2 April.

Controversy over refunds heated up in recent days after a passenger in Canada filed a class-action lawsuit seeking to force airlines to provide passengers with refunds in cases of cancelled flights.

The US DOT’s 3 April notice says airlines’ refund obligation “does not cease when the flight disruptions are outside of the carrier’s control”, such as in cases of government travel restrictions. It notes that coronavirus-related cancellations are “through no fault of the passenger”.

The refund requirement applies to tickets and “optional fees”, DOT says.

The agency’s enforcement division “will exercise its enforcement discretion and provide carriers with an opportunity to become complaint before taking further action”.