Airlines Have To Refund You If They Make A Significant Schedule Change (Not Just If They Cancel)

From early on in the current crisis I’ve suggested that you shouldn’t cancel flights until close to departure, waiting to see if the airline scrubs your itinerary. If you voluntarily cancel all you’ll get is a travel voucher. If the airline cancels on you, you’re entitled to a refund.

Several airlines were resistant to this. However the Department of Transportation reinforced that when airlines cancel flights they are required to give a customer back their money. They cannot keep money for services that aren’t rendered. “Needing the money” is not a justification, and by the way customers need the money too.

However it’s worth underscoring that refunds for future airline tickets aren’t just due to you in the event the flight you booked is cancelled. Refunds are also required in the event of a significant schedule change as well. Here’s the Department ofTransportation,

Carriers have a longstanding obligation to provide a prompt refund to a ticketed passenger when the carrier cancels the passenger’s flight or makes a significant change in the flight schedule and the passenger chooses not to accept the alternative offered by the carrier.

American Airlines used to offer refunds when flight schedules change 2 hours or more. For tickets purchased April 8, 2020 onward they require a change of 4 hours or more, or being moved from a non-stop to a connecting itinerary. That change is likely to pass DOT muster without difficulty. DOT isn’t clear on what the threshold for ‘significant’ is here.

United Airlines is requiring schedule changes of 6 hours or more to provide a refund. Up until March 6 the policy was changes of 2 hours or more. That may be within the bounds of significant as well.

For United tickets purchased prior to March 6 I would still insist on a refund and file a Department of Transportation complaint if none is provided, because even though their old published policy was more generous than the fine print of their Contract of Carriage, changing an advertised policy after tickets have been purchased is an “unfair and deceptive practice” in DOT parlance.

A reader recently asked me about an Allegiant schedule change of 11 hours 40 minutes. He was hoping they’d cancel the flight, but I am certain that a nearly 12 hour change (from an evening flight to a 6 a.m. departure) is significant. So I told him he should file a DOT complaint if they wouldn’t refund him and consider a credit card chargeback as well.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. @Barb
    Because your b2b agreement/contract with the airline clearly states for cancelled / refunded trips no commission will be paid.

  2. Before the CV-19 I booked 6 tickets to the UK from the US for the end of May. We deliberately picked the shortest route, with only one stop to limit travel time due to travelling with an infant. Delta has now added a leg to our flight which is going to be a nightmare. Do we have a case to demand a full refund?

  3. Have had no problem with this thus far with AA, AS, WN. Some refunds have shown up, some “on the way.” None declined.

    Cheers.

  4. I understand that but if the crux is “services were not rendered”- when flight cancelled, my services were rendered.

    And I fully understand all my commissions WILL get recalled. After my many years in this industry, being a small agency building a high end niche market, I am looking in the face of going out of business.
    At my age I could not survive what could be more than a year for the industry to “bounce back”.

  5. Delta changed my flight next month – was direct from LAX-BNA, now leaves 95 minutes earlier and connects in Atlanta, and on the return flight, the flights are the same but the arrival in LAX is more than 90 minutes delayed. Is this enough for a refund?

  6. @Ann, if your departure or arrival time changed by more than an hour or two, then yes, Delta should offer you a refund.

  7. @Ann James – I would call Delta and ask but would think you can get a refund. Delta’s threshold for schedule changes isn’t in their contract of carriage but I had a flight in early May changed and called hoping to get a refund instead of simply a credit (although their credits are good until 2022 and they have waived the $200 change fee so I would have lived with a credit).

    In my case the originating flight was changed to slightly over 2 hours later than my original flight. They cut the connection in ATL (42 minutes with is a little crazy) and I would have gotten to my destination (MSY) pretty much on time so wasn’t sure what policy would apply. The Delta agent told me since the change was over 90 minutes I was eligible for a refund and she processed it immediately (even though the overall impact on my arrival was less than 90 minutes). I would expect a connection gets you to your destination over 90 minutes late (or the originating flight is more than 90 minutes earlier than your non-stop) so you should be covered. Obviously Delta’s call but based on what they told me (assuming that is the real policy) you should be fine.

  8. Great info. Thanks, Gary. I have 2 Delta One tickets to BKK @$6000 each. I keep checking to see if there was a cancellation or schedule change. Today I discovered that the second leg (ICN to BKK) had been cancelled by KE (I’m on the DL codeshare). So far my Delta online record has not been updated to reflect this cancellation. I think I am entitled to refund under the above guidelines.

  9. I have a flight on Southwest Airlines on June 11th and return on the 14th. They have already changed my flights that were nonstop to flights with one or more stops. Can I get a refund if I decide it’s not safe to fly?

  10. Does this apply to foreign airlines? Aeromexico completely cancelled two legs of my trip. But only offered a voucher. I want my money back. I just recently filed a DOT complaint.

  11. Gary, as a longtime reader thank you for all the great information you provide us travelers. After multiple calls to United over the past few weeks I am happy to report that are now issuing me a refund on my 4 non-refundable tickets I purchased in early Feb for domestic travel, scheduled for last week. (of course the proof will be in the pudding when I see it on my CC statement).

    My (humble) suggestions for dealing with United on COVID-19 related cancellations:

    -Wait until last possible day to cancel your flights (usually 24 hours)
    -Have your ducks in-a-row: In my case they cancelled my direct flight and rebooked me same day for a 5 hours earlier flight through another city (stop-over).
    -Take good notes with whomever you speak with from the airline (my understanding is all conversations are recorded)
    -Research sites such as Gary’s and the latest info from DOT regarding flight cancellations/changes
    -Be polite but FIRM in refusing all options (other than refund) presented to you
    -Be prepared to quote DOT airline guidance to agent (e.g., “you changed your Carriage of Trade policy in your favor AFTER I booked/paid for my flight which is, according to DOT, an unfair & deceptive trade practice”)
    -Threaten (politely) to file a complaint with both the airline and DOT if refused refund
    -Be prepared to ask to speak with a supervisor
    -Do not give up! Recognize that you are trying to do the almost impossible – getting United to issue a prompt refund…

    Bottom line: United frontline agents right now are just trained to say “no” to refunds – regardless of your logic or legitimacy of claim. (It’s amazing on these calls …like being stuck in a Twilight Zone episode).

    Before finally acquiescing they took me to their last spot….”we can give you a refund but you will have to wait until your credit voucher expires on January 2022! I called back an hour later and repeated the entire process (including “go back to my last call and hear the agent tell me that i’m entitled to a refund”) ….and they finally relented.

  12. Does this apply to Southwest flights as well? Wanna Get Away and all lower fares seem to be exempt. If so, how about the early bird fees too?

  13. I was due to fly out of Europe to Washington on April 10th on United.
    Had contacted them proactively for a refund as the flight were obviously cancelled.
    Here’s their answer:
    “Dear Sebastien XXXXXX:
    Thank you for reaching out to us.

    We apologize for the change to your flight schedule. We’re closely monitoring the COVID-19 crisis and making adjustments as best we can based on circumstances beyond our control, such as government mandates and restrictions. Since your international flight schedule has changed significantly, you have two options regarding your ticket:

    1. You can retain a credit for the unused value of the ticket to be used towards future travel. You would need to cancel before your departure date and book your new flight within 12 months of the original ticket issue date.

    2. If you choose not to use the credit, you can request a refund back to the original form of payment at the end of the 12 month validity period.

    We appreciate your patience and understanding.

    Sincerely,

    United Refunds”

    Is offering a refund after a 12 months period good enough for them to comply with the DOT rules ?
    I have filed a DOT complaint, but haven’t heard from them so far. Any experience with this process anyone ? How long would it usually take them to even acknowledge the complaint ?

  14. I have three trips paid with Volaris. I’m sure two will be cancelled, May and June. December still up in the air, I suppose. Problem is these are Tijuana to La Paz MX. I also paid for the CBX crossing tickets through Volaris so they know I’m coming from US. Would Volaris give me a refund?

  15. @Sebastien,

    All the written correspondence with United will only offer travel vouchers. After sitting on the phone with an agent, and escalating to a supervisor, I was able to get a refund on my international flight that was cancelled for the end of April.

    Looking through the various threads on this, that is the only way to get a refund. Eugene has some very good rule of thumbs above, though I don’t think you need to wait until the last day if your flight has already been cancelled (you might forget/not have time). If you don’t get the answer you want, hang up and repeat. Yes, low time value of money, but I think most of us have extra time on our hands right now.

    The one pleasant surprise for me on the United interaction was that it only took a few minutes to get through to an agent, even though I called in the middle of the day. So I think volume and capacity are more in sync now (I called and got my refund promised yesterday).

    Finally, of course, like Eugene points out, polite but firm. I feel sorry for many of the agents- it’s a tough job at any time, but now is particularly hard… I thanked them for the offer of a voucher repeatedly, but insisted that would only be fair (and even generous) for my non-refundable flight if I wanted to cancel. Since they cancelled the flight, they needed to give me a refund.

    Hope this helps

  16. AA flight which I brought in Mar were reticketed in April as exchange since the original one layover trip is now two layover trip which is now departing in morning instead of evening.

    How long do I’ve to call them to get a refund?

  17. @George

    Thanks for the insights !

    I did call United today and not only did I get through very quickly as you noted, but the agent was extremely helpful and proceeded with the refund straight away, no questions asked, no need to argue any further.
    She did ask I wanted to opt for a voucher instead but did not even challenge my answer and proceeded.

    Let’s see if the money arrives, she mentioned a 10+ days delay in refunds but apparently it should be fine.

  18. I guess a change from 8AM departure to a 4pm departure on Delta should count as significant?

    The flight is LAX to OGG. Now getting the rest of my party to push for a refund is going to be an issue.

  19. Well the phone rep at United promised me a refund for two different cancelled glights after I read them the DOT rules, but only one made it to my credit card. Then, five days later, I got an email that my (other) refund was denied!! Called several times now, speaking to reps, supervisors, and the refund department – one of the refund guys quoted the 6-hour “policy” and then hung up on me!! Unbelievable. Finally reached another refund department rep who said once the request was denied, there was nothing she could do (really? it’s the refund department!), but that I should write the “Feedback” folks, explain the situation clearly, and quote both the DOT rule and their own Contract of Carriage applicable segment (that I read to her) and hope for the best. Wish me luck.

  20. @RK

    Sorry to hear about your situation.

    In spite of what they recently said I would call again and, referencing the call you had with the agent (incl. time/date) who stated you were entitled to a refund, ask the agent/supervisor to review the original recording. I would think would be highly unusual (and unethical & possibly illegal) for a verbal commitment made to you by the airline representative to be subsequently rescinded.

    All else fails I would notify the agent that you intend to file a written complaint with both the airline and DOT. I do think with the airlines now getting a bailout by the Government (translation: YOU) there will be increasing pressure on them to provide prompt refunds for cancelled flights.

    Good luck!

  21. If you purchased a business class ticket and later upgraded it to first class and paid a fee plus tax and the flight is cancelled by the airline, should you get the change fee and tax back as part of the refund?

  22. Delta changed one leg of my flight to a SkyWest flight, but still calling it by a Delta flight number (a different Delta flight number than the original on a Delta plane). Isn’t switching to a different airline a “significant” change even if the departure times are similar? Seems kinda sketchy to me and I ought to be able to cancel w/refund since it’s not actually Delta and that’s who I booked with and assumed I’d be flying with. What is the rule for contract airlines?

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