Consumers got no additional protections in the stimulus bill. So, in a follow-up to last week's column on "Airlines Playing Hardball," the hardball game is going into the second inning with no pro-consumer calls from the folks who are supposed to help.
The biggest problem consumers face is getting refunds for nonrefundable tickets on flights cancelled or otherwise impacted by the coronavirus -- and that means the vast majority of flights from early March to a range of future dates from mid-April to well into May. The airline industry recognizes two major kinds of cancellation:
-- Voluntary cancellation is one you, a traveler, instigate. In general, what airlines owe you in voluntary cancellations is determined strictly by each line's contract of carriage; there are no relevant government regulations. Most contracts provide that when you cancel a nonrefundable ticket, you never get a money refund but can keep some of the ticket's money value, less a change fee that is typically $200. Some of the new "basic" fares, however, are totally nonrefundable: use it or lose it.
-- Involuntary cancellation is one instigated by an airline when it cancels or substantially delays a flight. The U.S., Canada, Europe, and other areas have established rules for involuntary cancellation that are also typically incorporated into contracts of carriage. Rules require that in an involuntary cancellation, an airline owes you a complete monetary refund within a period of seven to 22 working days, depending on payment method, on all tickets, including totally-nonrefundables.
In today's crisis, most airlines are being fairly generous with voluntary refunds. Although they don't provide monetary refunds, most are waiving change fees: You can retain the full dollar value as credit toward a future flight. I see two pain points:
-- Some lines set unrealistic time deadlines to use the future credit. Typically, a one-year credit extension starts on the date you bought the ticket, not the date of your flight, so if you bought very early, you may find that rebooking within a short time is impractical.
-- Travelers who bought through online travel agencies such as Expedia are reporting difficulty in getting refunds. This is not necessarily the fault of the agency; apparently, some airlines have disabled the refund channels that agencies use.
Travelers looking for full-value involuntary refunds are facing a bigger problem. In many cases, airlines are not cancelling reservations even on flights they've removed from their published schedules. And even when they cancel, some lines are simply ignoring the black-letter regulations that require full and prompt refunding and instead offer a voucher with a delayed monetary refund. That's real hardball.
My recommendation for handling the situation remains as before. If you cancel on your own, you're pretty much stuck with what the airline offers; there's no regulatory relief. Take whatever the airline offers. But you should refrain from cancelling until a day or two before departure, looking for the airline to cancel and make you eligible for an involuntary full refund. Many airlines are honoring the rules and issuing full refunds. If your airline is ignoring the rules, however, you can't do much as an individual consumer. And, so far, the Department of Transportation has completely abdicated its responsibility to enforce its own rules. Depending on when and how you bought the ticket, you might be able to secure a chargeback from a credit card issuer.
Whatever you do, make sure either you or the airline cancels the flight before scheduled departure. I'd recommend waiting no longer than 48 hours before departure. If the airline hasn't cancelled by that time, take whatever it offers for a voluntary refund. Waiting too long makes you a no-show, with no refund at all.
Many of you have also been disappointed with travel insurance. Typical policies do not name "fear of an epidemic" as a covered reason for cancellation, and if your flight is cancelled, the compensation may be limited to the change fee, not the full value. It's too late for this trip, but for future trips, the only fail-safe cancellation insurance is "cancel for any reason."