Following the Department of Transportation (DOT) ruling last week that all airlines must refund passengers for flights that are canceled or changed due to the coronavirus outbreak, confusion among travelers ensued.
“Although the COVID-19 public health emergency has had an unprecedented impact on air travel, the airlines’ obligation to refund passengers for canceled or significantly delayed flights remains unchanged,” the DOT wrote in its Enforcement Notice. “The longstanding obligation of carriers to provide refunds for flights that carriers cancel or significantly delay does not cease when the flight disruptions are outside of the carrier’s control (e.g., a result of government restrictions).”
Although the DOT’s guidance seems like a blanket statement, there are factors that could prevent a passenger from getting their money back. Above all, travelers should be armed with knowledge of their airline’s policies before canceling or expecting a refund.
“If a flight is canceled and there’s a U.S. city involved, the traveler is due a refund,” Rob Karp, CEO and founder of luxury travel agency MilesAhead told. “The airlines weren’t all honoring that and now they’re starting to, but the international airlines are being tough.”
However, Karp told us specifically that Delta and its global partners, including Air France, KLM, and Alitalia, “have been phenomenal across the board.”
Delta has also accommodated their regular customers by extending their elite status.
When it comes to getting a refund for a rescheduled flight, each airline has their own definition of what qualifies as a “significant” time change. Delta will issue a refund for a flight changed by 90 minutes whereas United Airlines will only issue refunds for flights that are changed by 25 hours or more.
Another important thing to note is if you’ve bought your ticket through an airline that has a code share agreement with a major carrier, the airline you buy the ticket through governs the rules of the tickets. Smaller airlines may not be as accommodating as the major carriers they work with.
For example, if a traveler has booked a KLM flight through the Delta website, then KLM would be responsible for the refund. In this case, KLM is the marketing carrier, meaning it sold the seat to the traveler, whereas Delta is the operating carrier, which means its plane is being used. The marketing carrier would ultimately be responsible for the refund.
Booking a Silver Airways flight through United’s website would also apply here. A specific thing to look for is the ticket stock number, identifying the way the ticket is purchased. A Delta flight purchased through KLM would have a KLM ticket stock number of 074.
It’s important to read the fine print on your ticket, the contract of carriage, and the fare rules, regardless of the DOT’s guidance. And if you’ve booked through a third party like a budget site or travel agent instead of an actual airline, then contact them instead for further questions.
And when it comes to making the decision on whether to cancel yourself or wait for your airline to do so, Rachel Grosso, corporate relationship manager at MilesAhead, recommends waiting it out. Airlines have been continuing to extend the timeframe in which coronavirus-affected travel can be rebooked, so patience could pay.
In lieu of canceling, airlines are also offering flight vouchers and credits, or the possibility to trade in a long international trip for multiple domestic flights.
“Instead of getting that refund just hold out, you can get the credit and just use it for another time … a lot of airlines have been allowing to change the destinations,” Grosso said.
As time has passed since the outbreak began in the beginning of the year, Karp says that in the airline industry, “the best things we’ve seen is transparency and airlines providing options” for customers who aren’t sure what to do.
Across the board, airlines have been advising that if your flight is taking off in under 72 hours, you should call to see what the status is and explore your options for proceeding. If you have a longer period of time before your scheduled flight, then your best bet is to give it time.
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