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When are airlines legally required to give you a refund? Consumer expert Amy Davis weighs in

HOUSTON – Airlines have canceled or delayed thousands of flights since the coronavirus pandemic began in mid-March. Now, customers who paid for those flights want their money back. Instead of refunds, most airlines are giving customers vouchers or points to use on future flights within the next year.

The U.S. Department of Transportation recently sent an enforcement notice to airlines reminding them that “passengers should be refunded promptly when their scheduled flights are canceled or significantly delayed.”

Who is entitled to a refund?

Any consumer who paid for a flight that was then canceled or significantly delayed by the airline is legally entitled to a refund.

“And that last part’s the problem,” said Mark Huffman of Consumer Affairs. “What is significantly delayed?” he asked. The government has never defined it, but before the COVID-19 pandemic, most agreed a significant delay was any change that delayed the flight by two or more hours.

“They’re going to charge you if they can legally because they are hemorrhaging money,” Huffman explained, referring to the airlines.

If the consumer elected not to take a flight they booked, the airline does not have to offer a refund. Thousands of consumers canceled flights after the CDC recommended everyone avoid non-essential travel. People like Cyndee Farra assumed Spirit Airlines would refund her money when her son’s graduation was canceled in Boulder, Colorado. Instead, Spirit gave Farra a credit in the same amount of her purchase to use for a future flight as long as she uses it within six months.

“Outside of flying to Colorado for that, I have no need to fly within the next six months,” the school teacher said. “But I could sure use that money back.”

What can consumers do?

Huffman said consumers should complain to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The more people that file a complaint, the more likely the issue is to get the attention of regulators. That could then put the pressure on airlines to issue refunds.

If you are scheduled to fly in the next few weeks or months, but you don’t feel comfortable flying at this time, Huffman said you should wait as long as possible to cancel your trip. The airline may end up delaying or canceling it. If they do, they will owe you a refund. Otherwise, if you cancel, they do not have to give you your money back.