Airlines have an obligation to give affected customers full refunds for any trips canceled because of coronavirus, the DOT says. Here's what this means for you.


The Department of Transportation (DOT) says it expects airlines to provide flyers with refunds, not flight vouchers, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The DOT wrote in an announcement on Friday, due to the COVID-19 public health emergency:

“U.S. and foreign airlines remain obligated to provide a prompt refund to passengers for flights to, within, or from the United States when the carrier cancels the passenger’s scheduled flight or makes a significant schedule change and the passenger chooses not to accept the alternative offered by the carrier.” The announcement continues, “The obligation of airlines to provide refunds, including the ticket price and any optional fee charged for services a passenger is unable to use, does not cease when the flight disruptions are outside of the carrier’s control (e.g., a result of government restrictions).”

According to the government agency, it’s received an “increasing number” of complaints from passengers, “including many with non-refundable tickets,” who say they’ve been denied refunds for flights that were canceled or significantly delayed.

The travel industry has understandably taken a brutal hit due to the spread of COVID-19 and the related global prevention efforts. Thousands of flights have been grounded, airlines are laying off workers left and right, and no one is quite sure what the future holds for the industry. That’s why so many airlines may be attempting to keep cash on hand by issuing vouchers rather than refunds for trips. But it’s not a practice the DOT will let slide any longer.

“In many of these cases, the passengers stated that the carrier informed them that they would receive vouchers or credits for future travel,” the DOT said. “Because the COVID-19 public health emergency has had an unprecedented impact on air travel, DOT’s Aviation Enforcement Office will exercise its enforcement discretion and provide carriers with an opportunity to become compliant before taking further action.”

However, the DOT added, it would soon throw down the hammer if airlines didn’t start issuing better refund policies soon.

As the DOT added in its enforcement notice, it’s not unheard of for airlines to issue refunds in the wake of tragedy. The agency specifically noted that airlines gave refunds to passengers in the “aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and presidentially declared natural disasters,” adding that “airlines’ obligation to refund passengers for canceled or significantly delayed flights remains unchanged.”

What does this mean for you?

All this means, if your flight is canceled or significantly delayed, and you choose not to use the ticket any longer, you should have the right to a full refund for all segments of the trip.

That said, as The Points Guy has noted, actually getting a refund may be troublesome. Many airlines have attempted to stem the financial bleed by no longer allowing customers to receive a refund at all. That includes JetBlue, which enacted a “temporary” policy through April 15 that bans passengers from a refund, even in the case of cancelation, so long as the airline can put them on a new flight within 24 hours. United, Air France, and KLM have enacted similar policies. Only time will tell if the DOT will go after the airlines for these rules or not.

Our tip? If for some reason you still have to fly and really want to protect your ticket, opt for travel insurance that includes the ability to cancel for any reason. It’s the only (nearly) guaranteed way to protect your cash.