The world is in a time-out

The travel world has certainly been turned upside down due to COVID-19. Every country around the globe has been changing travel restrictions on pretty much a weekly basis. Airlines are adjusting their routes and aircraft even more frequently.

At the moment, some airlines including Air Baltic, Ryanair, Avianca, and EasyJet have 100% of their fleet grounded. Air France and KLM have over 90% of their fleet grounded, with hopes to be 30% airborne in July. Singapore Airlines has been flying just 9 aircraft. Emirates had plans to resume some flights in May, but now has suspended all commercial flights until at least July.

Suffice it to say, commercial flights are a very far cry from normal levels:

Commercial flights tracked by Flightradar24 Jan-Mar 2019 (green lines) vs 2020 (blue lines)

But perhaps the most shocking news is how airlines have been handling cancellations and refunds. There are seemingly endless reports of atrocious behavior.

JetBlue repeatedly tried to deny a refund for a flight which the airline cancelled, even when the passenger cited DOT law.

British Airways hid the option to request a refund. One could only access the refund option by manipulating their internet browser settings to turn off JavaScript.

AA tried to claim refunds were not possible unless your original fare was fully refundable.

United has told more than one person that they would receive a refund after an entire year.

Lufthansa has denied refunds and recently stated they will not be issuing refunds for the near future.

The list of misbehaving goes on and on. But here is what you need to know.

A refund is the law

We travelers may be David’s going up against the Goliath’s that are the airlines, but we have the law on our side.

The most important part: If your flight is cancelled by the airline, then you are absolutely entitled to a refund. In the words of the US Department of Transportation, “A passenger is entitled to a refund if the airline cancelled a flight, regardless of the reason, and the passenger chooses not to be rebooked on a new flight on that airline.”

Key Points:

  • The airline is the party responsible for initiating the cancellation.
  • “Regardless of the reason” – It does not matter if the cancellation was due to circumstances out of the airline’s control, such as government restrictions, COVID-19, etc.
  • You are entitled to a refund as long as you have not accepted a voucher or accepted a schedule/route change which gets you to your final destination.
  • The refund includes tickets that are nonrefundable, as well as extras including baggage fees and seat selection fees.
  • The US DOT law applies to all flights to, from, and within the United States. The EU has a similar law involving EU flights and carriers.

Refunds can apply in other cases, such as if you were involuntarily downgraded to a lower cabin of service, so be sure to give the US DOT page a read.

Our experiences with cancellations and refunds

We here at the MileValue Award Booking Service have been helping clients with cancellations and refunds. Here are a few of our experiences in recent weeks.

Air France

In March, Kevin helped a client cancel their award trip from Tel Aviv to the US, which we had booked several months ago. Air France’s cancellation waivers in early March did not appear to cover the client’s trip, but the agent waived the cancellation/redeposit fee without question. The takeaway – it never hurts to ask. Sending the airline a Direct Message on Twitter is one of the easiest and non-intrusive ways to inquire.

Another client had an award trip booked from Europe to the US for travel in mid-June. When Kevin first looked into cancelling the trip, the waivers did not include travel for June. When this is the case, the best strategy is often to wait and keep an eye on the waiver updates. Sure enough, airlines including Air France have updated the waivers to include June travel. We reached out to Air France via a direct message on Twitter. We included the reservation number, passenger details, and this note:

An Air France agent responded the next day, claiming we would need to pay the normal cancellation/redeposit fee:

We kindly asked for clarification. In addition to linking to the waiver article, we also copied the information into the message:

That resulted in the favorable response we were expecting:

Upon providing the requested details, Air France cancelled the trip free of charge. The miles were redeposited into the client’s Air France account immediately. And the agent noted the full taxes would be refunded to the credit card within two weeks.  

United Airlines

Many reports had been circulating that United was charging travelers cancellation/redeposit fees even in cases when passengers should have been able to cancel for free. This situation appears to have been improving as of late.

In early April, Kevin successfully helped a client cancel a domestic award trip. He first advised the client that we would need to wait to see if the cancellation waivers would be extended to cover May travel.

United did in fact extend their waivers to include free award cancellations for travel through May. We called the United MileagePlus phone line, cited the recent waiver update, and the cancellation was quickly completed free of charge. 70,000 miles were promptly returned to the client’s account, and the taxes will be refunded to their credit card.

Soon after that, United updated their MileagePlus program including extending status. Also within that update were key changes to award cancellations:

We are currently waiving all award redeposit fees for travel through end of May 2020.

We are now also waiving all redeposit fees for award ticket cancellations made more than 30 days before departure for the remainder of 2020.

United’s changes to MileagePlus

As such, even though one of our client’s trips was not until October 2020, we were able to cancel it here in April at no additional charge. This can even be done online. Log into your reservation and click on “Cancel flight.”

That will bring you to a page with the trip itinerary and a review of the mileage and taxes. There will be options to rebook, back out of the cancellation, or cancel for free:

Click on “Cancel Trip & Redeposit Miles” which will bring you to another confirmation page. Here it states the taxes and fees may take 7 days to be refunded and the miles may take up to 14 days to appear back in your account. In our experience, the miles have been instantly redeposited into the account.

After clicking “Continue,” there will be yet another confirmation page. This is your last chance to back out of the cancellation.

If you carried on with the cancellation, it is now final and you’ll receive a confirmation page:

Top Tip: With an award ticket cancellation, keep in mind the miles will then be subject to the airline’s expiration policy. The folks at Thrifty Travel have compiled a handy expiration reference list. Be sure to always confirm this with the particular airline’s program as it is subject to change.

airBaltic

K2 have also had personal flights cancelled, including by European carrier airBaltic.

As noted above, when the airline cancels the flight, one is entitled to a refund. But you sure wouldn’t know that from the email we received which notified us of the cancellation. Nowhere in the email did it indicate we could pursue a refund:

Instead, we went to airBaltic’s website, logged into our booking, and only then hidden in small print was there an option to request a refund.

Upon completing the information, we received a vague email about making a payment (?):

A couple weeks passed without further notice, so we reached out to airBaltic via their online form.

An agent responded that our reservation is “now cancelled and full refund will be done to payment account, within 90 days.” Well, by all means, please take your time.

We also received an email from airBaltic indicating a full refund is due, though the dates and departure information had nothing to do with our original trip:

Although we had to jump through some hoops, at least it does appear that airBaltic is honoring a refund. We’ve had great experiences flying them in the past, and with their plans for an all-A220 fleet after COVID-19, it would be our hope to fly them again.

The fact is many airlines are not telling passengers about refunds, and instead encouraging passengers to take vouchers rather than a refund. AirBaltic, American Airlines, and Qatar Airways have all offered passengers an additional bonus if they choose a voucher over a refund. This may make sense for some flyers, but as we’ve noted in a previous article, always check the fine print before accepting a voucher for restrictions, blackout dates, and more.

Keep in mind that you are not eligible for a refund if you accept a voucher.

Final approach

As we see in the above examples, if your goal is to get a free refund, wait for the airline to cancel the flight and keep an eye on the airline’s waiver updates. You may need to wait until the day of the flight to see if the airline will cancel.

Top Reminder: If the airline cancels your flight, you are entitled to a refund by law. This is US DOT law as well as EU law.

When contacting airlines be patient, kind, persistent, and courteous. Cite the DOT or EU laws, whichever applies to your case. If the agent still refuses a refund, kindly ask to escalate to a supervisor or HUCA (hang up, call again). Sending a direct message to the airline via Twitter is also a good idea.

As a last resort, if the airline has repeatedly denied a viable refund, you can dispute the charge with your credit card. This will require paperwork, so document any emails, messages, and communications you had with the airline. You can also file a complaint with the US DOT via this form.

If you would like help with a change or cancellation, we’re happy to help. Fill out this form and we’ll get back to you shortly.

Have you received a refund or voucher or changed your travel? Let us know your experience in the comments below. Cheers and travel on (virtually, for now)!

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