Airlines Have Been Stealing Customer Money From Cancelled Flights For A Year

The true test of character comes when you’re staring into the abyss and you see what stares back at you. Ethics rarely come into play when they don’t cost you anything.

Airlines revealed their true character during the pandemic. Many airlines around the world stole their customers’ money, and argued it was justified because they needed it. United Airlines simply refused to issue refunds when they cancelled flights at the start of the pandemic. They even tortured the English language and twisted themselves into a pretzel to hang onto the cash. JetBlue was a similar offender.

In contrast American Airlines refunded customers without nearly as much difficulty when they were supposed to, and they needed cash just as badly. It was the right thing to do. Memories are short, but airlines should be remembered for how they treated customers when the chips were down. It’s only because the US Department of Transportation cracked down that U.S. customers got their money.

Worldwide consumers weren’t so lucky. After a year Air Canada is finally issuing refunds, but only after the Canadian government offered them far more money than the refund cost in order to do so. They even argued US law doesn’t apply to them for U.S. flights sold to U.S. consumers in the U.S., which is why I I advised consumers to sue them.

European governments sided with what are essentially state-backed airlines over customers arguing that airlines should be able to keep customers’ money for flights purchased but then cancelled. The European Union said no, refunds are required but the EU is relatively toothless and airlines largely ignored those directives.

It’s only the smaller and less influential carriers in Europe that are seeing any enforcement, and even then outside of their home jurisdiction where they’re most powerful. And it’s taken a year, but Italy is fining Ryanair over its refusal to issue refunds.

Italy’s antitrust authority fined Ryanair 4.2 million euros ($5.12 million) for not refunding costumers for flights cancelled after June 2020 due to the COVID-19 emergency, the watchdog said on Monday.

The regulator added that the Irish airline had a “seriously unfair conduct” in cancelling planned flights, using the pandemic as the reason, and giving passengers vouchers rather than paying them back the price of their tickets.

Italy also fined easyJet and Volotea, though these airlines come out ahead with fines that are lower than the one levied against Ryanair even.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Turkish Airlines cancelled its flights last June and I requested a refund after being intimated of this cancelation. It took more than 6 months of following up with its online/phone customer service (using the term freely in this case) personnel and airport ticket sales office, who kept passing the buck by asking me to follow-up with the other group. When I finally did receive the refund, I was short-changed by +$200 (20% of original fare), allegedly due to foreign exchange rate change between Turkish Lira and USD. I looked up the exchange rates for the past year and there was no way that the TK lira devalued by that much!

  2. Excellent article!

    For all the shit AA gets about their lack of service, crabby FAs and general suckiness I will never forget that they refunded my trip to Europe that was scheduled for August 2020. When it became clear that Europe was a no-go due to the ongoing and expanding pandemic I had two choices from the AA Platinum Desk: hold for credit or refund and try again later. Well, “later” turned into months and then a year. We’re finally rescheduled for mid-September 2021 and not only did we get a ridiculous deal (Flagship Business to/from LHR for 100,000 miles each!!!) but the aircraft was upgraded to a 777-300ER. Happy Flyers, we are.

  3. I’m still waiting on refund for a ticket on El Al (roundtrip, planned April ’20, THEY cancelled the flights a few weeks prior)! Credit card (Citi Prestige) has been of zero help in recovering funds, told me they won’t get involved. El Al has been saying “refund is coming” for six months, will only communicate via Whatsapp.

  4. One time, AA cancelled my flight less than 10 minutes before departure. I called to reschedule, there were no other flights so I asked for a refund (and had to take a train). They agent said she couldn’t process the refund: I would need to call a second time after 24 hours because Simon Says. In a hectic time, I completely forgot to call back so they happily kept my money. I wonder what % of passengers on cancelled flights neglect to call twice for their money? And why is it twice? Why not three times?

  5. Praising American for honesty?

    Based on my experience and what a phone agent told me – when you cancel an AAdvantage award online you (often) must call to get miles restored to your account.

    No notice on website when you cancel you need to call in,

    Many who do not carefully track their balances will never catch this.

    This policy will “steal” millions of miles from AAdvantage accounts.


  6. In contrast to easily getting refunds from AA, Getting anything out of BA is next to impossible. As a starting point, they simply refuse to entertain actual cash refunds. So they issued vouchers that, on the surface, appear to be relatively free of restrictions – until you try to use them. Mine wouldn’t work for any online booking for some reason, so I called to apply it manually to a booking and of course had to pay BA’s egregious $25 phone booking fee. Vouchers also can’t be used with Chase or AARP discounts because of systems issues, not rules. So even their crap vouchers are painful and costly to use. It’s sad to see BA racing to the bottom.

  7. @Jon B

    “Many who do not carefully track their balances will never catch this”

    With all due respect, miles/awards balances should be tracked like your checking/savings accounts. It’s got some serious cash-value. Just sayin’…

  8. AA was the best for refunding during the pandemic. I was shocked, pleasantly, at how easy AA refunded a couple of tickets during the pandemic. One call, very helpful and knowledgeable agents who were happy to help and the refunds were processed almost immediately (award tickets, miles back immediately, CC refund after a day or so).

    Not so with other carriers, Lifemiles was the worst, it took 7 months to get refunds. BA took a couple of weeks and required a callback for one. United processed them but it for some reason the calls took significantly longer for United and I had a seat upgrade fee for a canceled reservation that the agent tried to skip refunding even though she mentioned it could be refunded if requested, so before I ended the call I requested her to refund it and she did but it required the extra effort on my part to make sure it happened.

    So, yeah, AA was the most helpful for refunds IME during the pandemic and I appreciate and will remember how well they treated me during hard times.

  9. I am still waiting for Tap Portugal since last August, they don’t even reply to emails anymore. But if the recalcitrants from Portugal think I am going away, they don’t know me. $$ USD 1750 still outstanding.

    Air India took 9 months, constantly lying to me telling me the credit was issued, but it took 121 contact times to get the money back $$ USD 982 and when they did finally transfer back in March this year, there was never any mention of the previous credit which proves they lied to me, no apology, nothing. Karma.

    Throughout the year I had many flights booked. Air China were the fastest with refunds, less than 48 hours for $$ USD 5000 approx, amazing.

    BA were very quick for $$ USD 2400, all paid back within 72 hours. .

    QF behaved like Australians do, she’ll be right mate, slow as anything, took their time but I eventually got through to them. It was a small amount relatively speaking $$ USD 650.

    UA were amazing, offered me a voucher or a refund, I took the refund. $$ USD 1850.

    DL issues a useless credit $$ USD 685, absolutely useless. Never again.

    QR were very quick. Nearly $$ USD 9000 with them. Being Plat helps I guess but they refunded within 1 week.

    AF were also very good. Also Plat so refund not an issue $$ USD 4000

    UL were terrible, took about 6 months but eventually I got it by going online and finding every single UL email address I could find, irrespective of department, I bombarded them with emails and eventually I got it $$ USD 3400.

    MH were appalling, had to do the same thing, bombard them with emails. $$ USD 1450

    So I got it all back except for damn TP.

    The lesson I got though, unless I simply cannot avoid it, I will avoid/boycott MH, TP, DL, UL and AI. I regards them as thieving bastards.

  10. AA Flight “Credits” are different from Flight Vouchers & do not show up in your bank for easy id to reuse online in Payments. . 2 hrs every time to call AA to apply. If you dont hold onto your tkt numbers AA will easily let you “forget.”

  11. I was very happy with Aer Lingus–they not only provided me with the full amount of credit for a future flight, but also a ten percent bonus. I didn’t ask for a refund as I knew that I would want to fly one of their routes again within the next couple of years, so I was more than happy with the flight credit. Also, I booked the flight with thank you points (the type that cannot be transferred) and points would have not been worth the same amount if I reapplied them to the same flight at a later date.

  12. Even worse than all that. Many airlines provided credits or vouchers instead of cash refunds or points refunds through places like the Chase UR portal. This was useless during the pandemic but now that travel is surging the prices are higher so you will get less product compared to the pre-covid fares at least for a while and many of those credits will expire before prices come back to normal.

  13. I was fine with UA. I was offered an electronic certificate or a refund. I rescheduled the trip for this August, thinking everything would be fine by now, lol!

    So I was happy to reschedule the trip, but I’m not happy that Polaris isn’t back to normal. Still, I’m flying Polaris-lite to Greece and back and I didn’t get Covid. I did okay.

  14. Thanks for not forgetting this issue Gary. My family got refunds pretty quickly from United, Qatar and Norwegian (got lucky). Air Canada finally refunded us 14 months later (they just got me so mad). Aeroflot refund is still remaining.

  15. TAP, El Al and Air Canada were the biggest thieves and only understood the language of a credit card chargeback.

  16. I had no problems with UA or AA.

    Nonetheless, I do not plan to pay cash for tickets until the actual flight is close in time. This may cost me more $$$ in the short run (missing some deals) but in the long run I don’t have $$$ tied up with dishonest carriers. In addition this avoids the problem we have seen this spring where airlines have cancelled many nonstops and then attempted to force rebooking onto undesirable connections that nobody would ever voluntarily choose.

    If airlines want to see more cash bookings in advance of travel they will need to shape up in terms of refunds and better accommodation for “schedule changes”

  17. Results seem to be all over the map. One interesting problem I’ve had with AA–and this isn’t exactly the same topic–is that when one pays a bag fee and then upgrades to a level where a bag fee is not demanded, there is no refund. That’s just nickel and diming wrong. The way around it is to open a credit card dispute, but the airline should do better than that. Perhaps the mentality is to grab what you can quickly and give back slowly. If at all.

  18. @drrichard

    Don’t forget about AA’s egregious policy of *not* refunding premium seats when a flight is changed or cancelled. They make you jump through hoops to get your money back. It’s really sheisty and just plain wrong. Especially when AA will then re-sell that same extra legroom seat! Ugh…

  19. Two US Senators recently sent a letter to all US airlines about this very issue. Evidently I have lent Alaska Airlines $1512.00 since December of 2019. I cancelled the flight because of covid in March of 2020. They extended my expiration date to use MY money until Dec 31, 2021. Wasn’t that just super of them !?

    I will not accept any further extension of my use of MY funds. I want a full refund since I have received nothing of value for the money – isn’t that the definition of a free exchange in our system? I also have over 50,000 frequent flyer miles with them which will soon expire. This crap is what invariably brings in the heavy hand of federal government regulation. I hope they get nailed for this.

  20. Still waiting (over 5 months now) for a refund from Fiji Air. They just shine you on…finally asked for a flight voucher. Haven’t gotten that either.

  21. We had a trip planned to Japan in March 2020. We had booked Premium Economy on ANA. When everything in Japan cancelled, I went online and cancelled the flight. The full refund was processed to my credit card within a week.

  22. Fiji Air business ticket last year. Given credit. Extended only once. Fiji still not open for travel. Same with Garuda and Virgin Australia. Several grand sucked up by the airlines.

    Solomon Air refunded with a 25% “fee”. Delta extended twice and I finally got to use it.

    And it wasn’t just airlines. Paid 3 resorts in full in advance. Not a dime returned and we are talking about some well into mid 4 figures.

  23. My refunds took a while (LH, UA and AC booked through UA, and BA booked through AA), and I had to push (and file a DOT complaint) not to just receive a credit, but eventually got it all back. However, I had learned from experiences years before (with TAP and Austrian) that it is much harder to deal with the non-US carriers than it is with the US ones for any changes. That is one of the reasons I had already begun to book foreign carriers through the US partners in order to avoid dealing with them directly, at least as much as can be avoided. This COVID experience has just reinforced that.

  24. Air Canada did give me a refund to my US credit card last week. In my case I would have been OK with the voucher, but cash is always better.

  25. TAP Portugal continue to behave like the recalcitrants they are. What a rude bunch of people, all on full salary no doubt. A new Temporary CEO running the joint into the ground. Yet another one, how many is that in the past 5 years. I swear that as soon as Tap here the R word from customers ( as in Refund ) they are told to put the callers on hold, use stalling and delay tactics and hold off as long as they can. The bastards still owe me $1200 from flights they cancelled last September. After I get my money back, I swear, never again. Animals.

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