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Complaints from airlines that refused to pay refunds for flights canceled during the pandemic have risen by more than 5,500% over the past year. Some customers still try to fight the airlines to get the money back, while others, who took credit or vouchers for future travel instead, find that those balances may soon expire.
This irritates some consumers who, as taxpayers, have come to the rescue of their airlines as they have lost billions during the pandemic.
“It annoys me,” says Scott Slonim from the Chicago suburb of Mondlee. He and his wife Nancy have planned a private vacation at the end of March 2020.
“We were supposed to travel to Washington, DC, to meet with our cousin and his wife, to see cherry blossoms that we hadn’t seen before,” says Scott Slonim.
The couple booked flights on American Airlines in advance. But two weeks before they left, in mid-March, when the scope of the coronavirus pandemic became clear, their doctor convinced them not to go.
“I am 70 years old and she is in her seventies,” says the retired lawyer. “We all have basic conditions.”
The pandemic will soon wipe out air travel, with the number of air travelers down 96% from pre-pandemic levels by mid-April. Airlines have reduced schedules and canceled thousands of flights, but American Airlines hasn’t canceled Slonims’ flights yet, so Scott says he called the airline and asked for a refund.
“We received a typical response from American Airlines, which we treated as a cancellation, saying we had canceled, which I think we did, but we ignored our request for a refund,” he says.
There’s a reason for this: If the airline canceled your flight, federal regulations refund your fare, but if you cancel, you might not be out of luck. The Americans eventually canceled Slomin’s flights to and from Washington, D.C., but since Slomins first canceled, technically speaking, no refund has been made.
So Slomin says he has contacted the company again.
“We started our journey through the internal bureaucracy of American Airlines to reach a human, and at the end they responded by saying, well, we can get credit,” he says. “And it’s like giving us a wood nickel.”
They again appealed to Americans, in writing and by phone, and consumer groups for assistance. They even filed a complaint with the US Department of Transportation, to no avail.
An American spokeswoman said the airline is providing customers with additional flexibility to ensure that those who want to change their travel plans have plenty of options to do so, and America has now extended time to use flight credits until the end of March 2022. The airline has also eliminated most of the change fees. For domestic and international trips.
But given their age and health conditions, the Slonims say they do not intend to travel again anytime soon, and were afraid to lose the $ 1,300 they spent on tickets.
After being contacted by NPR, the airline has reviewed the details of the Slonim case, and the spokeswoman says it will now refund the price of the Slonim airline ticket.
But they aren’t the only ones who feel they are being hit by flight, or worse, from the airlines.
The US Department of Transportation has been dumped with more than 90,000 such complaints since March of last year (https://www.transportation.gov/individuals/aviation-consumer-protection/air-travel-consumer-reports-2021). That’s 57 times over 1,500 complaints filed in 2019.
“I’ll tell you I’ve never seen a single issue that generates so much consumer outrage,” says Bill McGee, a longtime consumer aviation consultant and advocate in Consumer Reports. “This is off the charts and this has been going on for 14 months.”
“The airlines have acted repulsively from day one on this issue,” he says.
McGee estimates that airlines have between $ 10 to $ 15 billion should return the money to customers, and adds that making matters worse, he says, is the fact that airlines have gotten billions of federal funding to keep them afloat.
“The taxpayers gave it, not once, not twice, but three times, without giving back to consumers,” says McGee.
But Industrial Airlines Group of America says its seven member airlines have already repaid nearly $ 13 billion to customers at a time when they were bleeding an average of $ 100 million a day in cash last year. These recoveries amounted to nearly 20% of operating revenue last year, a NPR spokeswoman said, on top of billions of dollars in travel credits they issued to customers.
But now there’s an issue with those travel credits and vouchers for future travel, too.
“These coupons are fully due at the moment,” says Melanie Lieberman, travel editor at travel site The Points Jay.
She says many airlines are extending the expiration dates of these travel credits to later this year or until 2022, but she points out that getting an extension for credit expiration may depend on when you purchased your ticket and when you planned to travel. And Lieberman says the policy of each airline is different.
“The best thing you can do is double check those dates, make sure you know the exact typography, and the details of when your voucher should be used and when your travel should be booked,” Lieberman says.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, deConn, and Edward Markey, de Massachusetts, have called on airlines to offer cash refunds instead of credit for flights canceled during the pandemic and cancel travel vouchers’ expiration dates. They say they will Legislation proposal That would force airlines to do both.
The Department of Transportation issued two executive notices last year reminding airlines and ticketing agents of their obligation to provide refunds for canceled flights, the agency this week. Update his directions For clients who think they owe a refund.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Transport says that investigations into the huge number of complaints are still ongoing, but adds that “thousands of passengers who were initially denied a refund have received or are receiving requested refunds.”
Meanwhile, while complaints rose about the refusal of refunds for trips that they were unable to make last year, a new survey of those who did have already found that the airline Customer satisfaction during a pandemic He achieved his highest levels ever.