The U.S. Department of Transportation issued an enforcement notice telling airlines to give consumers prompt refunds when their flights are cancelled or significantly delayed -- even for cancellations or delays that are out of the airlines' control.  The DOT said, "Although the COVID-19 public health emergency has had an unprecedented impact on air travel, the airlines’ obligation to refund passengers for cancelled or significantly delayed flights remains unchanged."  

The DOT issued the enforcement notice in response to an increase in consumer complaints from passengers who said they were being denied refunds, but were instead being given credits or vouchers for future travel.  But with many airlines dramatically reducing their travel schedules in the wake of the COVID-19 public health emergency, the DOT said said that the vouchers and credits are not readily usable.

In light of the impact that COVID-19 has had on the airline industry, the DOT said that it will exercise its prosecutorial discretion and give airlines an opportunity to bring their refund practices into compliance before taking enforcement action.  The DOT said that it will refrain from pursuing an enforcement action against an airline that provided passengers vouchers for future travel in lieu of refunds for cancelled or significantly delayed flights during the COVID-19 public health emergency so long as: 

  • the airline contacts, in a timely manner, the passengers provided vouchers for flights that the carrier cancelled or significantly delayed to notify those passengers that they have the option of a refund; 
  • the airline updates its refund policies and contract of carriage provisions to make clear that it provides refunds to passengers if the carrier cancels a flight or makes a significant schedule change; and 
  • the airline reviews with its personnel, including reservationists, ticket counter agents, refund personnel, and other customer service professionals, the circumstances under which refunds should be made.

The DOT said, however, that it "will monitor airlines’ refund policies and practices and take enforcement action as necessary."