Airlines paid out more than $600 million in refunds to passengers during the COVID-19 pandemic for canceled and significantly delayed flights, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Under U.S. law, airlines must issue refunds when passengers' flights are canceled or significantly changed, and offering vouchers for future travel doesn't cut it. During the uncertainty of the pandemic, with its travel restrictions and airline employee labor shortages, airlines routinely were forced to cancel or change flights, often leaving passengers stranded — but at least they were entitled to refunds.
No one should have to spend hours on the phone or wait weeks for a refund if an airline cancels or significantly delays your trip.— TransportationGov (@USDOT) November 15, 2022
Believe you have been treated unfairly by an airline? Our Office of Aviation Consumer Protection has your back! pic.twitter.com/aApghwAzQP
But some airlines failed to offer refunds fast enough. "When a flight gets canceled, passengers seeking refunds should be paid back promptly," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a news release. "A flight cancellation is frustrating enough, and you shouldn’t also have to haggle or wait months to get your refund."
Six airlines were fined by the department for extreme delays in providing refunds, totaling $7.25 million. Overall, airlines have amassed $8.1 million in civil penalties in 2022, more than the agency has ever levied in a single year, the department said.
Of the six airlines fined, only one was a U.S.-based carrier. Frontier Airlines, a low-cost carrier that many passengers love to hate, paid out $222 million in required refunds to passengers but also paid a $2.2 million penalty for trying to skirt the law. The company changed its definition of "significant schedule change" in 2020 to retroactively apply a more restrictive rule and get out of paying passengers refunds that were rightly theirs by law. The other airlines fined were Air India with a $1.4 million penalty; TAP Portugal ($1.1 million); Aeromexico ($900,000); El Al ($900,000); and Avianca ($750,000).
To help airline passengers determine which benefits they're entitled to when flights are canceled or delayed, the Transporation Department launched an airline customer service dashboard in September. The website provides information about airlines' policies for rebooking flights, providing hotel accommodations or meal vouchers, as well as links to carriers' customer service plans.